The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 3

Chapter Eight – The Student

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

Danka and her fellow initiates eagerly awaited the Fall Equinox, when they would give up the title of “Initiate” and become fully accepted members of the Cult of the Ancients. To mark the change in their status, they would wear the Cult of the Ancients’ skull on their formal outfits. They handed over their dresses and tunics to the group’s most experienced seamstress, who carefully embroidered the skull that would tell the world that the wearer was a fully-accepted Follower.

Equally important was the skull-staff. Following the sacrifice of the five fortune-hunters, one of the elders cut off their heads and took them to a secret chamber under the Altar of Blood-Nourishment. He spent several days cleaning the skulls before soaking them in a special solution to harden the bone. He drilled holes at the base that would allow the skulls to be mounted on staffs. Finally, he coated the skulls with a special sealant that would prevent them from getting stained and make them as sturdy as a hard piece of wood.

The skull-staff as issued to a new Follower was nothing more than a simple wooden pole, but most Followers learned wood-carving and eventually carved designs or pictures into their staffs during their free time. One way for a Christian to tell how long a cult-member had been a Follower was to look at their staff. The most elaborately carved staffs belonged to Followers with the most experience.

However, the season did not give the Initiates much time to think about what life would be like after they became fully accepted Followers. The first three weeks of September were an extremely busy period for everyone in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. It was the last opportunity to bring in food, harvest a final batch of alchemy ingredients, and haul wagon loads of mysterious cave-charcoal.

The final cave-charcoal trip took more than a week and was the most unpleasant event in September: the roads already were muddy, the wagon wheels were constantly getting stuck, and the loads were unbelievably heavy. Káloyankt reminded Danka that as bad as lugging the black rocks might be, the trip would save the Followers from having to spend the winter chopping wood for fires.

The activity in the kitchen was frenetic, the final chance to preserve food that would allow the Followers to survive the winter. The kitchen had been in an open building all summer, but just before the cave-charcoal trip, the settlers enclosed the structure with a set of ingenuously-made wooden panels. The building would become a warm refuge from the bitter weather outside: not just a place for cooking and eating, but also a place for study and singing practice.

* * *

The trip to the Altar of Blood-Nourishment was an unpleasant slog along muddy trails passing through endless groves of trees obscured in cold fog and mist. It was hard to believe that just a few weeks before the area had been so green and pleasant. Danka and the other initiates were hugely relieved when the Altar finally came into view. The Followers went through the secret door and into the underground labyrinth to rest and change into dry clothing.

The ceremony took place at midnight. The Followers were arranged just like they were during the sacrifice: the men immediately around the altar and the women standing around them in a circle, holding their staffs and chanting. Everyone, with the exception of Babáckt Yaga and the five initiates, was dressed in their formal black clothing. Babáckt Yaga was covered in her black and white ceremonial paint, while the initiates were naked. The newest members trembled as they waited in the cold night air, but the equally-naked alchemist didn’t seem bothered by the temperature in the least.

Danka expected Babáckt Yaga to spend a long time shouting prayers and incantations, given her normal penchant for ceremonial flare and drama. However, on that night Babáckt Yaga seemed very humble and subdued. One by one the initiates knelt in front of her while she took their hands and silently prayed.

Danka was the first of her group to pray with her mentor. As soon as she knelt and took the old woman’s hands, her world went black. The large hostile eyes from the forest re-emerged. As always, the eyes took over her world and were only thing she could see.

“I have returned, Danka Síluckt. You see, I didn’t forget you.”

“Of course you didn’t forget about me. I never thought you would. Now I know you won’t leave me in peace. But I’ve accepted it.”

“Perhaps, Danka Síluckt, perhaps you have accepted my presence. But that doesn’t mean your Path in Life will ever be any easier. Learning brings knowledge, and knowledge brings despair. I have blessed your Mistress with much knowledge, more than any other living mortal. And yet, she is no happier for it. I granted her many extra years of life, but those years have brought her no joy. Like your Mistress, you will be blessed…”

“I wouldn’t call anything from you a blessing. And my Path in Life is my own, not yours or anyone else’s. Now… I call upon the Ancients to cast you out…”

The eyes slowly faded and vanished. Danka knew that it was nothing more than a reprieve. The Profane One would return… of that she could be sure, but at least now she knew it was possible to fight back.

When her consciousness returned to the Realm of the Living, her eyes met those of Babáckt Yaga. The old woman’s expression did not change, but it seemed that she was fully aware of what had just happened in her initiate’s inner world. Somehow, she knew.

With a slight tug of her hands, Babáckt Yaga silently ordered Danka to stand up. An elder brought her the black dress, now complete with a finely-stitched image of a skull.

“You will dress. You now have earned your rightful place among the Followers of the Ancients. The Ancients will bless you with knowledge, and burden you with responsibility.”

Danka was extremely grateful to get dressed and finally cover her body against the chilly wind whipping around the open meadow. Babáckt Yaga picked up a newly-crafted staff, complete with a real skull, the skull of a man who had been alive just three weeks before. The skull contained a finely crafted oil lamp, which was vented through the eye sockets and designed to be resistant to being blown out unintentionally. An elder lit the lamp. The alchemist held out the staff.

“In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain. This staff brings burden and responsibility into your life, not peace and happiness. Perhaps the Ancients will allow you a few moments of happiness as you progress through your days in the Realm of the Living, but happiness is a gift, and a very fleeting one at that. Do you accept that the Path of Your Life is not the blind pursuit of pleasure?”

“I accept that, Babáckt Yaga. The blind pursuit of pleasure is not my Path in Life.”

“Then you will take up this burden. Everyday, for the rest of your time among the living, you must earn the right to carry it. Learning is never finished. Acquiring knowledge is never finished. And the struggle to serve will never be finished.”

Babáckt Yaga handed the staff to Danka. The women let out a long wail. When the eerie mournful noise finally died down, Danka left the altar and took her place among the Followers. She waited for her fellow initiates to receive their outfits and staffs. As each of her companions took up their burden, she celebrated by wailing along with the others.

The Followers spent the night sleeping in the underground passages before closing them up for the year. The next day they took precautions to hide the entrance and to clean the holy site to remove all evidence of their most recent visit.

As soon as they returned to Babáckt Yaga’s settlement, most of Danka’s companions prepared to leave the mountains for the entire winter. Within days they departed, taking with them pack loads of alchemy ingredients and medical equipment. The majority of the Followers took up residence in the houses of wealthy provincial citizens instead of constantly making the arduous trek up and down snow-covered mountain trails. No matter where they went, the Followers could always rely on a patron to provide free room and board, which was a small price to pay for having a doctor readily accessible to their families and friends. Hosting a Follower also provided honor and prestige within the community, because the Followers attended the medical needs of anyone nearby who needed their services.

* * *

Winter came earlier, stayed longer, and was much harsher in the northern highlands than in the cities in the Duchy’s western valley. As the nights grew colder and a storm of sleet hit the compound, Danka realized that she would miss the comparatively mild climate of Starívktaki Móskt. While the valley-dwellers still enjoyed the gentle sunshine of the early fall, in the mountains the tree leaves already had turned with the cold frosty weather.

The colder climate forced the Followers to give up their habit of not wearing clothing in the settlement and while wandering in the nearby mountains and streambeds. However, even during the winter the Followers sought to set themselves apart from conventional society. They didn’t wear their formal Cult clothing, but instead wore fur-lined leather shirts and boots. If the temperature outside remained above freezing, they wore nothing else, which meant they remained naked between their knees and their waists. Danka thought the cult members looked very odd, their bare thighs and bottoms contrasting with their fur-covered feet and torsos. Even in the coldest weather the settlers rarely wore any type of trousers, but instead protected their bodies with outer robes that were black and similar in appearance to the hooded prayer robes used by worshipers in the Danubian Church.

Babáckt Yaga’s settlement was quiet after her doctors departed for the winter. The only people remaining were the ones who most recently had joined the Cult and still needed training, and a few older members who had retired from traveling. The older members spent their days educating the younger ones, making sure their knowledge and skills were passed on before their Paths in Life ended.

The medical training over the winter was intense and often depressing. The camp kept a supply of preserved headless bodies from sacrificial victims for the young Followers to practice on and dissect. The young members also practiced on live animals such as pigs, which had to be deliberately injured. Sometimes the senior Followers cut the pigs with swords or daggers, and sometimes they pushed an animal off a platform onto rocks to break its bones. Then it was up to the younger Followers to anesthetize the struggling and squealing subject to evaluate and treat its injuries. Any animal about to be butchered for meat was injured and operated on several times before finally being killed. It was cruel and unpleasant work, but at the time there really was no other training method available. Babáckt Yaga could not afford to place her group’s reputation in jeopardy by having her newest students train on human patients and risk making a mistake.

Training for operations and attending injuries was only a small part of Babáckt Yaga’s education for her newest subordinates. She left the physical training to the elders. For her, understanding alchemy was much more important than being a good field surgeon. She already had introduced the newcomers to creating basic medicines. Now that they had their skulls and were fully accepted in the Cult, they could be trusted with preparing more sophisticated medicines and working with the most expensive and hard-to-obtain ingredients. One of the first recipes that the three women learned was preparing the Followers’ much-coveted birth-control paste.

“No matter where you go, with this knowledge every woman, from harlot to baroness, will seek your favor and friendship.”

As the snow fell and the cold wind whipped around the settlement, Babáckt Yaga gathered the five newest members of her group into her laboratory and library. Over the years she had collected a copy of every book on medicine and alchemy known at the time, including ancient texts written in Arabic, Greek, and Latin. She had inherited part of the collection, but during her life had greatly expanded it. She also had translated many of the Greek and Latin texts into Danubian and wrote commentaries on the effectiveness of the medical procedures and how to improve upon them. Whenever she finished a translation, she had a Follower make a copy and had it sent to an associate who maintained a library and printing press in Sebérnekt Ris.

As an example of her work with translations, Babáckt Yaga directed her students’ attention to a couple of old books lying on her study table. The titles were in a foreign language: Historia Plantarum and De artificiosis extractionibus liber. The books were in horrible condition: very worn and with the pages covered with annotations handwritten in Danubian.

Babáckt Yaga explained, “Two hundred years ago a young man called Valerius Cordus conducted research on plants and their medicinal uses. He wrote extensively and recovered much of the knowledge that was lost during Humanity’s Great Rebellion against the Ancients. My Path in Life included translating these works into the language of the Duchy to ensure his knowledge is available to our people. The Paths of the Followers’ Lives calls upon us to expand upon what people like Valerius Cordus discovered. I say expand, because there are many plants unique to the Duchy that Valerius Cordus did not know about. So, we’ve studied his experiments and applied them to Danubian plants. Also, we’ve imported and cultivated the most useful foreign plants described in his works and refined his medical research. Year after year the Followers have built upon his knowledge, and in doing so, we are acting in defiance of the Profane One. The day will come when the Profane One will tire of my efforts and end my Path in Life, but until that day comes, I will continue my work to recover what has been lost, and your Path in Life is to assist me in that effort.”

So …during her first winter as a Follower, Danka’s duties included copying translations that would be sent to Sebérnekt Ris, where they would be printed for further distribution. She perfected her penmanship and continued to expand on her vocabulary. Strange to think, just two years before she had been completely illiterate, and now she was transcribing complicated medical studies.

* * *

An important arrangement that the settlement’s remaining residents had to make for the winter was sleeping. There were three sleeping houses, but at any given time only two were occupied. Every month the houses were rotated so that one could be left “fallow”. That meant the structure was evacuated, swept out, and the windows left open to freeze any insects or rodents that had taken up residence inside. The Followers took clean bedding, bathed, and set up in the house that had previously been unoccupied.

Danka learned why Babáckt Yaga took such extreme precautions. In a country where fleas, lice, and bedbugs were extremely common, the alchemist was determined to keep such vermin to a minimum in her settlement. She was convinced that blood-sucking insects carried many of the “Profane One’s” curses; most notably bubonic plague.

By the mid-1700’s the Danubians had figured out that bubonic plague was associated with rats, hence they started calling the sickness “the rat plague” and began measures to reduce the number of rats in their settlements. After decades of observations and reading, Babáckt Yaga suspected that it was not the rats that directly brought the plague to humans. She had figured out that both rats and humans were affected by the same disease, and looked for a possible common cause. Finally, through a series of experiments with groups of sick and healthy rats, she determined that the rat plague was caused by a blood-poison that was transmitted by fleas, not the rats themselves. Ridding an area of rats certainly helped control the plague, but what really mattered was ridding an area of fleas.

She researched other blood-poisoning curses of the Profane One, and had decided that insects, especially fleas and mosquitoes, were the Profane One’s messengers that carried blood poison from one person to the next. Thus, the way to stop the Profane One from poisoning blood involved minimizing the number of blood-sucking insects.

Each sleeping house was heated with a metal stove for cave-charcoal. However, the heating was inadequate: during the coldest months it was just enough to keep the rooms’ temperature from falling below freezing. The beds helped, because they were enclosed with thick covers on top and around the sides. All of the beds were large enough to fit two people comfortably, so to conserve warmth each Follower slept with another person, either their closest friend or a lover. So, a final detail that Danka needed to arrange was finding a person to share her assigned bed.

Danka knew that she needed to take Káloyankt as her sleeping partner. After having spent the previous winter enjoying a bed to herself at the Church Temple, she was not thrilled at having to return to sharing one. Unfortunately, the cold did not give her or anyone else a choice in the matter. She had to have another person to keep her warm while sleeping, and Káloyankt was the logical choice. It was what he expected and what everyone else expected. Rather than risk hurting his feelings and spurring possible gossip among her companions, Danka announced that she would pass the winter with Káloyankt.

Káloyankt was, of course, elated. Now that she officially shared his bed, he considered her as “his woman”. During the long winter nights he was guaranteed sex whenever he wanted it, because Danka acquiesced anytime he touched her and sought to arouse her. Danka and Káloyankt were young, vigorous, and in excellent health. Under their dark canopy they practiced every sexual position imaginable many times over.

Káloyankt was under the impression that sharing a bed and having sex with Danka would solidify their relationship, with the end result being marriage whenever they were ready to leave Babáckt Yaga’s settlement and venture forth into the world. Danka fully understood her lover’s expectations, but the more time she spent with him, the more her doubts about the relationship increased. She couldn’t understand why, because Káloyankt was the type of man she was looking for. He was educated, intelligent, and the son of nobility. He was a good sexual partner and a vigorous lover. He respected her and did not seem to hold her peasant upbringing against her.

And yet… and yet… Danka spent many sleepless nights troubled by her own illogical emotions, even as she lay in her lover’s arms and felt his breath on her body. She couldn’t imagine staying with him past the spring. He was a part of her present, but if she couldn’t force herself to love him, how could he be part of her future?

* * *

The daily routine of studying chemistry and medicine, learning new alchemy formulas, preparing potions, practicing surgery on cadavers and injured pigs, spending several hours copying translations, and practicing hymns and chants in archaic Danubian left Danka’s companions mentally exhausted at the end of each day. Apart from learning, the Followers had to attend to their physical needs in a hostile environment. They had to prepare meals, care for their livestock, and keep their living area clean. There were time-consuming setbacks, such as the day four pigs escaped and only two were re-captured, and the night an extreme cold snap killed a third of the settlement’s hens and burst a cistern. Even in a well-run settlement, winter was a time of hardship.

As the months went by and the winter solstice approached and passed, Babáckt Yaga noted the progress of the newest Followers. If they became tired or discouraged, she eased their training or shifted their responsibilities. She did not expect the same results for everyone, knowing that different people learned at different paces and had different strengths and weaknesses.

The alchemist was most impressed by Danka. She seemed to be the most promising recruit to enter the Cult of the Ancients… ever. The peasant girl was used to physical hardship, so the challenges of winter life did not trouble her in the least. She did not flinch or hesitate when confronted with an injured animal: she calmly sedated the subject and set about sewing up wounds or splinting broken limbs. She could evaluate internal injuries and tell if there were wounds that were untreatable.

The girl was extremely smart. By the beginning of 1752 her vocabulary matched that of many people who had years of formal education. During those darkest months, the young Follower transformed into a different person. She was determined to erase her identity as a 'peasant girl'. Her Pagan beliefs and newly-acquired knowledge gave her confidence in her own abilities, which pushed her to pursue increasingly challenging subjects in her studies. Babáckt Yaga calculated that, at the rate she was progressing, within just a year Danka would fully understand all of the subjects needed to be an alchemist; including botany, chemistry, and working with mathematical formulas.

The detail of Danka that impressed Babáckt Yaga the most, however, was her desire to learn for the sake of learning. She never tired of spending time alone with Danka because she saw so much of her own personality as a young woman in the new recruit. Whenever Danka showed up under the alchemist’s laboratory, she could count on the ladder dropping and receiving a call to climb up. She was desperate to learn and Babáckt Yaga was eager to teach.

After her companions had gone to bed for the night, Danka visited her mentor to receive instruction in archaic Danubian. She didn’t just want to sing in archaic Danubian; she wanted to be completely fluent in the dialect of the Ancients. She also wanted to learn Latin and German. She became interested in maps and in learning about the countries surrounding the Duchy. She wanted to know about history and understand why times changed from generation to generation. Babáckt Yaga, whose memories went back a century, appreciated the opportunity to share stories of a forgotten lifetime with a person whose journey in the Realm of the Living was just beginning.

* * *

At the beginning of February Babáckt Yaga began the process of preparing a new batch of longevity potion from her supply of dried mushrooms. The first step in that process was deciding how much of the potion to make.

For the first time in her life, the alchemist had a huge supply of specimens from “The Joy of the Ancients”. Although the stock of the potion’s key ingredient was enormous, it was destined to be the final harvest. Because of the way the mushrooms grew, the species was unlikely to ever recover from the previous summer’s slaughter.

There was another consideration. The potency of preserved specimens of “The Joy of the Ancients” peaked about six months after they were dried, but then gradually weakened. Babáckt Yaga was not sure how long finished potion would last, because she had never tried keeping it in storage for more than a year. Well, she would just have to take that risk. She decided to convert most of her mushrooms into longevity potion.

The next decision she would have to make was determining who would be given the potion over the following year. When taken properly, the potion’s effect on a subject was to slow down the normal aging process by three fourths. That meant a person taking the treatment over a four-year period would only age one year. If the patient stopped, the aging process resumed at a normal rate. Over the years she had administered the potion to herself and others, Babáckt Yaga had not noticed any negative side-effects.

She would continue giving the potion to herself, of course. There were a couple of elders working on medical research who also would receive the potion, to give them time to finish their work. There were some researchers in Sebérnekt Ris, and her old friend Fítoreckt, who was the Followers’ leading alchemist in the northwestern part of the Duchy, who also would continue with the treatment.

After giving the matter some thought, Babáckt Yaga decided to add her student Danka Síluckt to the list. The girl had her faults, but those faults were the result of her having to come to terms with the conflict between her talent and the limitations she was facing. Of all the young people who had passed through the settlement over the years, Danka Síluckt showed the most potential, by far. With her gifted mind and hunger for learning, it made sense to give her some extra time to develop herself. Maybe… maybe Danka Síluckt could even take over the settlement some day. Even with the longevity potion, Babáckt Yaga wasn’t getting any younger. She had been able to delay the inevitable, but death would come to her, potion or no potion. She had to think about a successor. Maybe the peasant girl was that person, the one who would guide the Followers into their uncertain future.

On the night of February 14, Danka ascended the ladder to receive her extra hours of instruction from her patron. As usual, she brought with her a kettle of boiling water, expecting to serve tea to the alchemist and to herself. Instead of the normal mint and herb mixture, Babáckt Yaga ordered the student to open a ceramic jar and remove two spoonfuls of blue powder. The concoction tasted bitter, but left a pleasant sensation that would last several days.

After finishing their drink, Babáckt Yaga commented: “The Realm of the Living is changing, Danka Síluckt. For many years I have pondered where our Path in Life is leading us, and I asked for a sign to illuminate the future. I did not request the illumination because I harbor any illusions that I can benefit by seeing what will be. I am old and my Path in Life will end shortly. I asked for illumination so I could understand in what direction to point those who will come after me. I received my answer last summer, with my failure to protect ‘The Joy of the Ancients’. The Realm of the Living’s connection to the Old World is fading, disappearing little by little. That process has been going on for many centuries, but I am convinced you will live to see its completion. The Ancients have decided to no longer speak to the Realm of the Living through the Followers. They will continue to speak, but it will be through others, not us.”

“Do you have any idea who ‘the others’ might be, Babáckt Yaga?”

“Yes. You might think I am discouraged by the passing of the Old World, but really I am not. I think the Ancients will eventually speak through the Danubian Church, or through the Old Believers, to be more precise. Many Christians are looking at us… the people who represent the Old World, and are taking interest in what we have to say. They don’t want our rituals, but they do want our knowledge. So, when the final Follower puts down his skull for the very last time, and the Blood of Life Nourishment flows no more, we will continue to contribute. The riddle is how to make that transition.”

Danka pondered how to respond. At the moment she intensely disliked the Danubian Church. Now that she had experienced the relative freedom that came with living as a Pagan, she was disgusted by the restrictive lifestyle of the Christians, even if they were Old Believers. However, deep down she knew the real reason of her dislike of the Church stemmed from her memory of Bagatúrckt and his father’s failure to control him. Did she really have the right to judge the entire Church based on a single traumatic event in her life?

Her thoughts jumped to a strange question: “Do you think that maybe… the Followers would join the Church?”

“Some already have. Two years ago I sent two young men to the Seminary in Starívktaki Móskt, and last year, just before my Path in Life crossed with yours, I sent a young woman to the Great Temple in Danúbikt Móskt. I will send another one of your companions to the Great Temple in the spring. So… we are trying to make the transition.”

“You... are you telling me… that maybe I should study for the Christian Priesthood?”

“Not at all. You’d never make a good Christian. You have the heart of the Old World beating in your chest. But in your lifetime, you will experience the transformation that is coming among our people. You belong to the new era, but the Ancients will grant you a glimpse of the old. You must bear witness to everything you see and teach anyone who wishes to learn. You must remember everything the Ancients choose to show you and acquire the skills needed to serve the Duchy. However, your Path in Life is not to just stand around learning, watching, and remembering. You have the Power to heal. You, Danka Síluckt. Your Path in Life will be to fix what seems broken beyond repair; to restore what no man thinks can be restored. You will carry the knowledge of the Old World with you so you can re-build part of the new one. That is why I have started giving you the blue tea. I need to hold back the Profane One and buy you some extra time to learn as much as you can. When you have learned what you need to learn, you will leave this settlement and fulfill your Path in Life.”

“Among the Christians?”

“Yes, among the Christians, but not as a Priestess.”

“Babáckt Yaga… I don’t want to live among the Christians. I’m really happier here. I like being a Follower.”

“Who said anything about your happiness? It’s not your Path in Life to seek happiness. As long as you pursue happiness, it will evade you.”

As long as I pursue happiness, it will evade me. Yes, that was indeed the reality of Danka’s life. She thought about those harsh words as she returned to the sleeping house. She made love to Káloyankt, before spending yet another sleepless night in his arms.

I’d be happy with this man. He loves me and would give me the life I always wanted. I really want to love him. I want to stay with him… and yet… I can’t. I know I’ll never love him, because the Ancients wouldn’t allow it to happen. I know I could be happy with him, but it is not my Path in Life to be happy. Instead of bringing him joy, I’d be destined to bring the Destroyer into his life… to make him miserable.

Danka had only one consolation: she had no reason to break up with her lover for several more months. She’d have to wait until the summer, when they’d be sleeping in separate beds. Then she’d follow her Path in Life and disengage herself from a relationship that offered her the life she had so desperately sought just two years before.

* * *

The days were getting longer. The sun came out occasionally, giving Babáckt Yaga’s settlement a welcome break from the dreary mist and snowstorms of winter. Patches of bare ground appeared and the snow disappeared from the trees. The nights were still cold, but they were not so long, so heating became much less of a problem. Shortly the trails would start to clear and the Followers’ isolation from the outside world would come to an end.

Whenever she had time, Danka continued her studies. By the early spring she became interested in learning what she could about religion and mythology. As a Follower, her first priority was understanding her own religious heritage. She became familiar with all of the stories of the Ancients and could recite them from memory. She was able to read and understand archaic Danubian, but was determined to master speaking it and writing it as well. She wanted that connection with the Old World, to know that had she lived thousands of years before, she would have had the skills to fit into the ancient culture.

She also became interested in the faiths of the modern world. She finished the studies she had started the previous year in Starívktaki Móskt by memorizing the texts of the Danubian Church, and fully understood the theological differences between True Believers and Old Believers. She examined the information that Babáckt Yaga had on other religions such as the faith of the Ottoman Empire, which the Danubians referred to as “the Followers of Mohammed”. Danka began forming opinions on the various religions and assessed their strengths and weaknesses.

Danka even became interested in the mythology of non-Danubian people. She already was familiar with the Danubian Church texts including the Christian Bible, the Book of the Ancients, and the Book of the Correct Path, but now she had the opportunity to learn some more about Pagan times throughout Europe. She read Babáckt Yaga’s translations of Norse sagas, Slavic folk-tales, and the mythology of the ancient Greeks. The Greek stories didn’t impress her, because it seemed the Greek gods were nothing more than ordinary men gifted with extraordinary powers they didn’t know how to use properly. But then… Danka did come across a mythical figure that caught her attention: the Hebrew demon Lilith.

Noting her student’s intense interest in Lilith, Babáckt Yaga directed her attention to the sources and references she had available on that topic. The direct mention of Lilith in the Old Testament book of Isaiah was frustratingly brief, but there were other sources in Kabbalistic writings such as the Zohar that provided additional information. For a woman to have that level of cosmic power, to terrorize pious men and actively defy and confront the Christian God, made Lilith into an object of admiration and fantasy for Danka.

“That’s what I want. To do what Lilith did. I want the power to terrorize the pious.”

“That is not your Path in Life, Danka Síluckt. I know what you seek. You would seek pleasure through vengeance against those who dishonored you. And just how do you expect to do that? The man who most dishonored you is already dead. As for the others, you have no way of knowing whether they continue to live, or if they have already held up their mirrors before the Creator. You have no way of knowing. Since you fancy yourself following a being who defied the Roman God, then I will quote a passage from the Roman Bible:

So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.” For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.

“I recite this to you, Danka Síluckt, for a simple reason. Nearly two years have passed since you left Rika Héckt-nemát. What news have you received since your departure? How would you know if anything in that city remains as you remember it? How would you know if anyone there remembers you? And, whether or not anyone does remember you, what difference does it make?”

Danka wasn’t sure how to respond. She thought about saying that she understood and would give up on her thoughts of revenge, but to do so would entail lying. She had learned never to lie to Babáckt Yaga.

Finally the old woman broke the silence. “You have done well, not to speak the deception that is in your heart. You ponder seeking power over the pious so you can seek revenge. I fear that eventually you will take action. I can see that very clearly. I cannot dissuade you: only you can dissuade yourself. However, remember my words… the day you act on your fantasies, your life as you know it will be ruined. Your Path in Life will change, and you will have to begin anew. Remember my words when that happens.”

Historian's Note 01: During my research I came across seven manuscripts that I believe were handwritten by Danka Síluckt. There are two journals in the medical school in Rika Héckt-nemát that are directly attributed to the founder Vesna Rogúskt-Orsktacktna. I also found two translations in the Church library in Sebérnekt Ris and three more translations in the Royal archives, that appear to have been written by the same hand. I had my theory verified by handwriting experts, who studied handwriting samples from all seven books and confirmed they were scripted by the same individual. The manuscripts show a clear progression in the author’s penmanship, with the works in Rika Héckt-nemát being the most recent and with the best handwriting.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Historian's Note 02: The final known samples of “The Joy of the Ancients” (amanita danuvius-caeruleum) were harvested by scientists working at the university in Sebérnekt Ris in 1811. Along with six specimens of “The Joy of the Ancients”, scientists collected many other fungi, including numerous samples of the highland green moon-cap (amanita danuvius-viridis), which is “The Joy of the Ancients’” closest living relative. Because of their appearance, the two species were mis-classified at the time and have yet to be re-named. In reality they are not closely related to any other species of mushroom. Both species grew and reproduced extremely slowly, but unlike its extinct relative, the highland green moon-cap has the good fortune to be poisonous and to not possess any medicinal value.

The last alleged sighting of a specimen of the “The Joy of the Ancients’” living in the wild was in 1820. It is hard to say whether the 1811 scientific expedition contributed to its extinction. I doubt it, because only six specimens were collected and amateur fortune-hunters were hunting for the mushrooms as well.

In 1935 the Danubian government ordered the transfer of the remaining dried specimens to the National Museum of Natural History for better preservation. More recently, the Danubian Ministry of Science sent the samples to geneticists in Germany to see if the plant’s genetic code can be reconstructed. There are some DNA fragments that do not appear in any other plant, including the highland green moon-cap. It appears some genetic information has been permanently lost, even from the best-preserved specimens. Efforts to fully decode the genetic make-up of “The Joy of the Ancients” have proven unsuccessful.

It is hard to over-emphasize the tragic loss resulting from this extinction. I did not go into details in the main narrative, but prior to the late eighteenth century, the Followers of the Ancients conducted extensive research on various medicinal properties of “The Joy of the Ancients”. The plant had other benefits to humans apart from longevity. For example, the Followers used a mixture of spores combined with ether to cure several severe cases of tuberculosis. One of Babáckt Yaga’s journal entries also claimed one of her elders had been able to reverse cancer development. Unfortunately, the Followers’ research was held back by the dwindling supply of dried mushrooms, which became completely unavailable after 1800.

Chapter Nine – The Follower of the Ancients

The first two Followers among those who had left the settlement for the winter returned in the middle of March. The men braved several days struggling up mountain trails covered with icy mud, leading four pack mules loaded with spices, dried fruit, books, and correspondence from Sebérnekt Ris. The men’s arrival was a time of excitement in the settlement as its residents spent their meals reading letters and listening to the newcomers’ updates on events around the Duchy.

One of the men, a middle-aged field-surgeon named Ermin, also brought some bad news. In October he had left in the company of his pregnant wife, but returned as a widower. In January the wife had suffered a miscarriage and died of blood-poisoning a few days later. Ermin was distraught, because he was unable to help her and never managed to figure out what happened. He spent the day after he arrived with Babáckt Yaga, carefully describing his wife’s symptoms and the measures he took trying to save her. The Cult leader kept a journal in which she detailed unsolved medical cases, and now faced the unhappy task of adding one of her Followers to its contents.

Danka never understood why, but of all the middle-aged men in the settlement from whom she had received instruction over the previous summer, she had liked Ermin the best. He had traveled widely and was interesting to talk to. He also was an excellent instructor for the newcomers, patient and capable of explaining complicated subjects so that anyone could understand them. If an initiate did not grasp what he was teaching, he did not automatically assume it was because of his pupil’s stupidity or stubbornness.

Precisely because Danka liked Ermin, Babáckt Yaga tasked her with helping him unpack and setting up his bath. The alchemist figured that Ermin needed to talk and knew that Danka was an excellent listener. She also calculated that being alone with Ermin might help Danka begin winding down her relationship with Káloyankt. She disposed of Danka’s current lover by sending him on a fishing expedition with another young female Follower.

So… Danka accompanied Ermin to the bathhouse. She took his clothes and dropped them in a tub of hot water as he settled into the bathtub. She stripped as well, taking advantage of the heated water to wash her own clothing. She then covered his head with soap so she could shave his face and scalp. He had not been shaved since the end of January. He sat quietly while his young companion cleared away two months’ growth of hair.

After she finished shaving Ermin, Danka told him to just relax while she dealt with their clothing. The Followers had constructed a rolling device to extract water from wet clothes that was much more efficient than trying to wring them out.

She noticed her companion staring at her body as she moved about the room. She couldn’t fault him for it: after having spent two months alone, he couldn’t be expected to look away from the bare figure of an attractive young woman. Danka realized she was somewhat attracted to him as well. The years had taken their toll and he was not particularly good-looking, but she liked his personality and appreciated his talent for teaching. Most importantly, she found him interesting to talk to. She patiently listened as he described what happened to his wife and his own feelings of guilt and sadness. His situation was frustrating, because he understood medical knowledge was advancing and eventually the ability to help a woman in his wife’s situation would be developed. That was fine for future generations, but didn’t do him any good.

As she passed the clothes through the roller, she continued with the conversation. Her background did not give her much experience for expressing sympathy, so she did not try to comfort him with kind words. Instead she encouraged him to go into technical detail about what went wrong with his wife’s pregnancy and what would have been needed to save her. She prompted him to talk as a doctor and a teacher, not as a grieving husband. As always, she wanted to learn. As Ermin’s teaching instincts took over and when he continued to talk about the miscarriage as a medical practitioner, his emotions began to recover.

Danka returned to her companion to rinse off his head and make sure she had not missed any spots. She decided to rub some more soap on his back. Without thinking about what she was doing, she massaged his shoulders. When she inadvertently brushed his skin with her breasts, he reached up, grabbed her arm, and pulled her to his front. He looked up at her with a hungry expression. Suddenly, the mood in the room completely changed.

“You do understand, young lady, that it’s been over six months for me. I have not touched a woman for six months. If you wish to tempt me, there will be consequences.”

Danka was shocked. She hadn’t really thought about sex, but how could she have been so oblivious? She was naked, with a naked man, in a warm room, and had just spent the last hour letting him watch her as she went about her duties. Finally, she was massaging him. Yes, that would indeed be tempting for any man. Yes, there would be consequences. She realized that’s what she wanted. She glanced into the bathwater and noted that he was hard.

She wasn’t sure what to say, but with her free hand she caressed Ermin’s arm. So… it was decided. She would give herself to him. That afternoon her body would belong to Ermin, not Káloyankt.

Ermin let go of Danka’s arm. He knelt in the bathtub and grabbed the girl’s shoulders. He kissed her hard on the neck and ran his wet hands up and down her back. He stood up, kissed her passionately, and ran his hands over her bottom. She massaged his penis, making it as hard as she could. And yes, he was hard. He certainly would have no trouble entering her.

The bath house was not set up for love-making: there was no comfortable place to lie down. Danka noted a sturdy worktable. That would have to suffice. Actually, the table gave her an idea. She placed her hands on the surface, spread her legs, and looked back at him. She assumed the traditional submissive love-making position.

She looked back at him and smiled. I’m yours… take me… I surrender myself to you…

Neither lover really understood what was going on in Danka’s mind at that moment. There was no hesitation, nor a single thought about Káloyankt. She was desperate to give herself to Ermin. Without saying anything, he placed one hand on her shoulder and caressed her bottom with the other. He explored her vulva and slipped his finger into her wet pussy. He teased her clitoris and ran a fingertip around her trembling sphincter. He continued to tease to make her desperate… to make her truly want it.

Finally, he pushed her down onto the table and motioned her to arch her hips to expose herself as much as possible. Six months… he had waited six months. He thrust very hard as six months of pent-up desire and frustration poured out of him into Danka’s eager body. She squealed with pleasure and he grunted loudly. Oh yes… so good…

Babáckt Yaga stood near the back wall of the bath house listening to her two subordinates. She was deeply satisfied. Hopefully, Danka would realize on her own that her Path in Life did not include staying with Káloyankt. He was a fine young man, but it was not his destiny to be Danka’s husband. The alchemist knew that his Path in Life would take him back to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. He would take over his father’s house and help transform that city. To fulfill his Path in Life, he needed a girl acceptable to the town’s nobility. Danka wouldn’t suit him, nor would life among the spoiled aristocrats suit her. They needed to separate. Now that Danka had betrayed her relationship with Káloyankt, hopefully leaving him would be much easier.

The next day Danka had finished some outdoor chores and was about to return to Babáckt Yaga's study to continue working on transcribing a book. It was still too cold to walk around naked, so she was wearing her coat and boots. As usual, she was bare between her waist and her knees. She saw Ermin repairing a fence. She could tell by his expression that his mood had greatly improved. She now understood the reason that Babáckt Yaga had wanted her to be alone with him and was strangely excited to see him. It wasn't that she simply wanted another round of sex: she wanted something more that she really couldn't define. She realized that she wanted him to take her again. She wanted to submit to him, a desire she had never experienced with Káloyankt.

The two Followers exchanged some comments about the day's chores, before the conversation shifted to the book Danka was working on. Ermin gave the young woman some observations about the translation, but was distracted by the strange look in her eyes. Without really thinking about what she was doing, Danka placed her hands on the fence and smiled. Ervin's penis started to stiffen. He grabbed her hand and led her behind a storage cabin, to a spot that was hidden from the rest of the camp. There happened to be an abandoned barrel partially buried in the ground, at perfect level for what the two lovers wanted to do. Danka got on her elbows and knees, exposing herself as much as she could. Ervin caressed her bottom and teased between her legs.

Already she was wet, but Ervin made an odd comment, originally meant to be a joke, that set loose a wild fantasy in her thoughts. "You really are an undisciplined temptress, young lady, distracting me from my duties and ignoring your own. Perhaps your bottom is more suited for touch of the birch rod than the touch of my hand."

Her heart pounded at the thought of submitting to discipline from him. As her lover's hand gently stroked her bottom, she went wet thinking about what it would be like to endure the birch rod. To be alone with him in a hidden part of the forest, to be bent over, feeling his fingertips on her unprotected skin, but knowing that the sharp sting of the birch rod was only moments away... yes... she knew that she wanted it, as long as it was Ermin wielding the switch. She thought about the anticipation, of going out among the birch shoots and finding the perfect rod, peeling off the bark and cutting it to the right length. Oh yes... then she'd shyly hand it to him... and surrender herself.

Ervin's fingertips gently traced her wet labia and teased her clitoris. He was surprised by how wet she had become. Her breathing was coming out in gasps. Fascinated by her reaction, he patted her bottom and added: "You haven't answered my observation, young lady."

"I... I'd like that..." Danka was shocked by her own answer. Yes, it was something she suddenly craved, but she couldn't imagine confessing such a strange desire.

"Yes my love, you would like it, wouldn't you? Naughty girl... I knew it. Then I’m obligated to accommodate you. As soon as the snow clears I'll take you to the birch grove and we'll spend a nice long afternoon there.”

With that he entered her. She experienced a delicious orgasm as her thoughts filled with the strange fantasy that she was destined to share with her newest lover.

Káloyankt returned from his fishing trip in a strange mood. He was eager to make love to Danka, but there was something very strange about what he was doing. It seemed he was desperate, as though he wanted to prove to either himself or to her that they were still a couple and still committed to each other. Danka wondered if he suspected her relationship with Ermin. However, she reasoned it was much more likely that he had cheated on her by making love to his fishing companion, which would have been fine with her.

* * *

Instead of paying a visit to Altar of the Equinox, the Followers spent March 21 through March 23 stranded in their settlement. A late winter storm covered the entire northern mountain range with heavy wet snow. Nearly half a fathom fell in less than a day, forcing the followers to spend their time cleaning off rooftops and clearing paths instead of giving honor to the Ancients. The leader retreated into her study which, during a moment of crisis, was unusual for her. No one saw her for three days. When she emerged, she was sullen, morose, and appeared depressed. She seemed reduced in stature, as though she had lost something in her soul. She had nothing to say at the moment, apart from announcing that she had decided to send three of the newest Followers to the seminary in Danúbikt Móskt. Out of five recruits, only Danka and Káloyankt would remain behind.

After a moment of silence, one of the young women asked: “So …we shall not be working in the villages this summer?”

“No. That is no longer your Path in Life. Your Path in Life will be to serve the Ancients through the Danubian Church. You’ll be safer there than anywhere else.”

The young Followers looked at each other. Safer? That was an odd thing for her to say…

Babáckt Yaga’s settlement remained isolated for two weeks following the late snowstorm. The snow started to melt within a few days of the storm, but on March 30 the temperature rose and there were two days of heavy rain. The snow was now gone, but the paths were covered in deep mud and washed out in many places. It wasn’t until the second week of April the Followers began using the trails.

Meanwhile, in the settlement Danka continued with her studies and her daily chores. She also struggled to balance the two men in her life. Unlike her relationship with Káloyankt, from the beginning both Danka and Ervin knew their affair was just that, an affair. There was not a chance they could stay together. And yet, he excited her, for reasons she could not have explained, even to herself. She loved being submissive to him in a way that never would occur to her when she was with Káloyankt. With her younger lover she would never even think of assuming the submissive love-making position, but with Ervin it seemed to come naturally. As for the promise of a birching in the woods, had Káloyankt suggested such a thing, she would have brushed him off with a joke. Had he insisted, she would have become angry. And yet, with Ervin, the promised afternoon of discipline and love-making in the birch grove was something she very much anticipated.

As she lay awake, pondering the strange twist in her love life, she wondered what it all meant. She could only hope it wouldn’t end badly. She was still known as “Káloyankt’s woman” around the settlement and her partner seemed totally oblivious to what she was doing with the Elder. Ervin was tremendously helpful with being discreet. He had his own reason to be quiet: the older women would have disapproved had news about his relationship with the peasant girl become public.

* * *

On April 15 the entire settlement packed up for traveling. There were 50 Followers from Babáckt Yaga’s compound and the area surrounding Sevérckt nad Gorádki. The Followers’ first destination was the town of Nagorónkti-Serífkti. They spent several days in a frustratingly slow descent as they led pack animals loaded with books, manuscripts, equipment, partially prepared ingredients, and finished potions. The trek down the mountain was uneventful, apart from its physical difficulty. Upon emerging into the flat farmlands of the Western Valley, the Followers put on their formal garments, picked up their skulls, and marched solemnly along the road leading to their destination. They marched at night with their skulls lit, singing ancient hymns in a ritual that had been going on for 5000 years. Along the roads, groups of True-Believer Christians stood quietly and gawked.

Upon arriving in Nagorónkti-Serífkti, Babáckt Yaga’s group greeted more of their brethren and set up camp. The town continued to be surprisingly receptive to the Cult of the Ancients, in spite of it being full of True Believers. The Followers had the local Priest to thank for the welcome, given that he was much more concerned about what the Followers could do for his parishioners than he was worried about their Pagan beliefs.

The Followers spent three days in Nagorónkti-Serífkti. During that time, Danka and her companions had little to do, so they took advantage of their free time to walk around the town and the surrounding area. She felt very proud of herself as she showed off to the locals, especially to well-dressed young women and men that were her age. Strange to think, just two years ago they would have dismissed her as an illiterate and dishonored laborer. Had she approached them, they would have hissed and kicked her. Now, they were intimidated. Yes, now, when she looked at them, they were actually afraid of her, afraid of the haughty-looking girl in the sinister back dress.

And the skull on my staff… yes it is real… and I saw the man to whom it belonged when he was still alive. You’ll never match any of that. None of you.

Her thoughts wandered to her hometown of Rika Héckt-nemát. It was not far from Nagorónkti-Serífkti; just a couple days’ journey south. Could she go there? Oh, how would she love to return in her Cult outfit and show off and then… and then… and then what? Well, if she went back unaccompanied and her neighbors remembered the Beelzebub story, it was quite possible they’d finish what they started: strip off her outfit, tie her hands, and throw her into the Rika Chorna. That thought made Danka understand a very important reality: her Follower’s dress only protected her and gave her status if she was with other Cult members. As soon as she was alone, she’d be just as vulnerable as she was while wearing her laborer’s clothes.

So… Danka was smart enough to understand that returning home in a Follower’s dress wasn’t going to do her any good. Her Mistress would never approve such a trip and even if she did, the girl’s status as a Follower would be irrelevant. Rika Héckt-nemát was a city of True Believers, where the town council was even more hostile to the Followers of the Ancients than the leaders of Sevérckt nad Gorádki.

However, the temptation of seeking status and power so she could seek revenge did not leave Danka’s thoughts. She wondered: if I can’t do it as a Follower, then how could I do it? She tried to suppress the idea, but it stubbornly resurfaced.

Status… power… revenge…

* * *

The long solemn line of Followers marched west from Nagorónkti-Serífkti. They traveled slowly, in single file, with their skulls showing their presence and lighting their way. Each night additional groups of Cult members joined the main procession. They sang ancient hymns and chanted as they marched. They only traveled during darkness and stopped to set up camp as soon as the sun came up.

During the day, the Followers not tasked with cooking or attending pack animals engaged in the usual medical routine; spreading out among the nearby villages to vaccinate the locals against smallpox, perform surgeries, and sell medications. The Cult doctors were welcomed by most of the local villagers, in spite of their strange songs and sinister-looking clothing. Babáckt Yaga’s subordinates adjusted their prices according to people’s ability to pay and were perfectly willing to accept trade goods or workers’ services in lieu of silver. When performing operations or delivering a baby, they only demanded payment if the procedure was successful. Even villagers who were totally destitute received attention. The Followers always needed help digging out cave-charcoal, so many of the poorest clients trekked up to the mountains to spend a couple of days pulling black rocks from the ground as reimbursement for medical attention for family members.

With Káloyankt accompanying her as a bodyguard, Danka spent most of her mornings in village squares or marketplaces selling finished potions and recipes. The birth-control paste was the favorite; Danka could count on selling all of her jars within an hour or two of presenting her wares. Nervous young women, many of whom were keeping their purchases secret from their husbands or fathers, furtively approached her with silver coins as soon as they discovered what she was selling.

The procession left the Western Valley and turned northwest, traveling several days along a winding road through hills and mountains. On the final day of the journey the Followers did not stop when the sun came up, but instead continued moving towards their destination of Sebérnekt Ris. In the distance Danka could see the East Danube River and a huge waterfall on the northern the horizon. Above the waterfall there were yet more hills, most of which lay beyond the Duchy’s northern border.

Sebérnekt Ris was situated in a stunning location, on top of a hill with the main road passing by to the east and steep slopes running to the East Danube River to the west. Danubia’s northernmost city guarded the only route that connected the Duchy to north-central Europe. The waterfall blocked the river as a possible transportation route, so the only way into the Western Valley was by traveling along the road. There was a fort with a cannon battery facing to the north and the main city had two walls encircling it. The city was surrounded by gardens that concealed traps and defensive positions. Assuming that a foreign army could ever force its way past the cannon crews guarding the border defenses, they would still have to conquer Sebérnekt Ris before moving south.

Danka knew through her history studies that during the reign of King Vladik the Defender there had been two major invasions passing through Sebérnekt Ris by armies from the Holy Roman Empire trying to conquer the Danubian capital. On both occasions the invaders had captured the town and killed most of the inhabitants, but there they remained trapped, unable to make it past the rugged terrain and King Vladik’s guerrilla archers. It was interesting to see the place in real life and try to imagine how it must have been when the King’s Royal Army was battling the invaders.

Babáckt Yaga’s old friend Fítoreckt ran the town’s university and print shop. Both institutions were set up inside a large compound that included a bathhouse and bakery. The instructors all wore Cult of the Ancients uniforms, but many of the students were dressed in ordinary civilian clothing. Students stepped outside to unload the pack mules, while the travelers entered the compound to bathe, change their clothes, eat, have sex, and sleep.

The trip was an annual event that mixed religious fanfare, getting all of the Followers together in one place, and delivering translations and medical research for printing. Following a huge feast there were singing competitions with sweet-cakes given out as prizes. Danka and her two companions from the previous year won prizes by singing the seduction hymn they had used to capture the Austrian fortune-hunters. The singing was followed by the annual naked dance. All of the Followers, the elders and leaders included, stripped and spent the next hour dancing rhythmically around several bonfires. The dance was followed by the Great Fire Benediction, where everyone had to make love to at least one person he or she had never met. Danka was thrilled and took full advantage of being able to experiment with different partners and without worrying about any consequences or obligations. She wore herself out having sex with six men, ranging from an initiate from Sebérnekt Ris to an Elder working in Nagorónkti-Serífkti.

The next morning Danka was one of the first Followers to wake up. She was surrounded by hundreds of naked, sleeping bodies. The entire compound reeked from the stench of stale sex. Danka knew that undoubtedly she must have been among the most offensive, with the sweat of six men covering her body and their semen dripping out of her vagina. She didn’t know what to make of her situation, now that she was alone with her thoughts. Her body ached and her vulva was raw, but she certainly had no regrets. No Christian could ever do what she had just done. Her thoughts wandered to the uptight Seminary student in Starívktaki Móskt, the one who had taught her how to read. She’d love to see that judgmental woman’s expression if she only knew what her former student had just done. With that the young woman rushed to the bathhouse to bathe ahead of the waking crowd.

She passed Babáckt Yaga, who was lying with her arms around a young man who couldn’t have been any older than Danka. The leader’s century-old body was not a pretty sight. Danka smiled and suppressed a laugh. Not bad, Alchemist… 110 years old and you’re still going… not bad at all…

Some of the Followers began departing the day after the Great Fire Benediction, mostly medical staff who would be working in the villages surrounding Sebérnekt Ris. Meanwhile, Babáckt Yaga and Fítoreckt organized the annual trading expedition that would cross the border. There were items the Followers could not obtain in Danubia, such as amber, copper, jade, chalk, dyes, and several alchemy ingredients. For those items they would exchange medicines, Danubian mushrooms, potions, magnifying glasses, fine linen, and vanity items such as crafted jewelry. A total of 40 Followers would travel north, leading teams of pack-mules and driving several wagons. They changed out of their Followers’ uniforms for the trip. The men put on Trader’s Guild outfits and the women wore average Danubian dresses. The trip was extremely important, so both Babáckt Yaga and Fítoreckt would lead the others.

Danka was thrilled as she sat in a wagon riding next to Káloyankt. Never could she have imagined that she’d actually have to opportunity to leave the Duchy and see a foreign land. Her excitement built as they traveled north of Sebérnekt Ris and passed over a ridge between two hills with steep rocky cliffs.

There was a small fort on the road itself, but the more important defenses guarding the route were higher up. Danka knew that the Kingdoms of Austria and Poland, both of which were much larger and more powerful than the Duchy, lay on the other side of the border. However, there had been no foreign invasion attempt since the early 1500s because of the region’s topography. The cliff-sides were a perfect defensive location, in which the Danubian Royal Army had constructed underground forts filled with captured enemy cannons. The Duchy had been fortifying and improving their positions for two centuries. As long as there were enough soldiers to staff the forts and operate the gun batteries, the northern border now was impenetrable.

After passing the fort and cliffs, the Followers could again see the East Danube River, but now they were above the waterfall. They descended a short slope leading to a small tributary of the main waterway. The smaller river formed the Duchy’s northern border. The region to the north was covered by low hills, most of which were treeless and were being used as sheep pastures. A stone bridge, guarded on both sides by garrisons of border guards, spanned the river. On the opposite side, about half an hour’s ride north of the border, was the town that was the trading expedition’s destination.

The group stopped on the Danubian side of the bridge. They split up: Babáckt Yaga would stay behind with the group managing the animals, while Fítoreckt would lead the group making the crossing. Danka would go with the group crossing over because of her experience with bartering and because she had studied German and Slavic. The young woman had her doubts concerning her abilities, but was determined to do her best. She knew having to trade with foreigners was another of Babáckt Yaga’s challenges that she’d have to pass.

Káloyankt explained that the foreigners were scared of witches and would be very likely to burn the alchemist alive if she fell into their hands. Therefore their Mistress had to stay on the Danubian side of the border. He explained how the trading would be arranged: the Danubians crossing over would take a single wagonload of wares. After those items were sold or traded the wagon would return and a second wagon would transport another load. The precaution was necessary to prevent the entire caravan from being attacked and robbed.

“They need what we’re bringing. They’d prefer to slit our throats and take our things for free, but they can’t do that if we have only a small portion of our trading goods with us at a time.”

Danka didn’t know what to expect on the opposite side of the bridge. Unconsciously she had expected everything to be exotic and beautiful, and the Duchy’s northern neighbor to be a land of beauty and mystery. The foreign land was none of that. The trading group found themselves surrounded by stench and squalor as they passed filthy hovels and hoards of malnourished sick children. She observed the peasants working in the fields and noted that the women were much more heavily dressed than Danubian peasants would be. All of the women were wearing aprons, long sleeves, and headscarves. As a peasant’s daughter, Danka couldn’t imagine working outside in such an outfit on a hot day.

The Danubians entered the town. The inhabitants were different from the visitors in every way imaginable. Everyone, except people who were obviously poor, seemed way over-dressed. The women wandered about in large frilly dresses and covered their heads with shawls. The men wore heavy coats with multiple rows of buttons. The hair of both sexes was totally different from the hairstyles of the Duchy. Instead of shaving their heads or cropping their hair short, the male foreigners wore their hair in long pony tails. A few official-looking men had an abundance of white curly hair, which Danka later learned were actually wigs. The women had their hair done-up, but it was not braided. A big difference was the use of hats. Many of the foreigners wore them as symbols of status, which contrasted with the Danubians. In the Duchy hats were a practical item worn by workers and peasants. Guild members wore them as well, but average citizens, especially women, tended not to use head garments.

There were plenty of soldiers milling about. They wore colorful uniforms with tall black hats and carried huge muskets, contrasting with the soldiers of the Duchy, who wore tunics and had light comfortable uniforms designed mostly for running and mobility.

Danka winced at the stench of the foreigners. Unlike the Danubians, they didn’t bathe and they didn’t wash their outer clothing. Many of them were missing teeth and the odor coming from their mouths was something to behold.

The traders passed the town’s cathedral. The priests were all men, dressed in black and carrying crucifixes, in a similar manner as the True Believers in the Duchy. The foreigners moved their hands in front of their chests upon passing the entrance of the church. Danka later learned the gesture was to form an imaginary cross and it was related to the execution of the Son of Man, who the foreigners called Jesus Christ. There were several statues of a woman inside the cathedral which Danka knew through her reading represented Jesus’ mother Mary. It was interesting and a little frightening to see all those statues and the veneration of the Virgin Mary in real life.

The local leaders were hostile to the Danubians, especially the priests, who viewed them as heretics. The average residents were simply curious about the strange-looking traders. The Danubian men were dressed in trader’s tunics, wore their hair extremely short, and had shaved their faces. Even stranger were the women, who were wearing nothing more than traditional white dresses and shoulder shawls, with nothing covering their heads or arms. They casually spoke to their men with confidence and behaved in an arrogant manner unbecoming of a proper Christian woman.

The Followers entered the town market to set up in several stalls they had previously rented. Danka and three older female Followers would barter, but had instructions to only interact with foreign women. They were not to have any conversations with men, because the Danubians had a separate stall set up for male customers. Meanwhile Fítoreckt and an assistant would barter with the local tradesmen to sell their linen and other bulk items.

Danka’s language studies helped her while she was talking to the foreign women. She couldn’t speak well, but she spoke just enough to communicate. She was the youngest member of her trading group, but of the four she was the most talented for haggling and bartering. She cajoled the customers and forced them to admit the Danubians were offering goods that could not be bought from anyone else.

“Our lives are short, and the Lord has numbered our days. Do you really wish to wait until next year to buy what we are selling? Is not the silver you spend today worth the year you will have ahead of you to use your purchase?”

Danka noted what strategies worked to convince the foreign women to part with their silver and what was less effective. As the day progressed she became better at what she was doing, to the point that her companions let her do all the talking and contented themselves with assisting. The foreigners tended to underestimate the young Danubian, but quickly learned the girl was extremely shrewd.

The Followers had three wagons they were using to move their trading goods across the border. They emptied a load of Danubian goods in the marketplace and waited until the wagon was filled with foreign items. A mounted messenger returned to the Danubian side of the border to tell his companions to send the next wagon to the bridge. The new wagon waited until the first one had safely crossed back into the Duchy before proceeding north.

A group of foreign priests entered the marketplace to watch the Danubians with disapproving expressions. When the church bell struck four, they approached Fítoreckt.

“You’ve stolen enough from our people, you thieving heretic. Now take your whoring women and remove your satanic presence from our town. You have defiled and insulted us long enough.”

Fítoreckt ordered the women to pack up immediately. They loaded their few unsold items into the waiting wagon. The Followers were ready with an armed escort to get everyone safely across the border. The women sat in the wagon while the men guarded them with crossbows. Now that the day’s trading had ended and the Danubians had nothing more to offer the foreigners, their situation had become considerably more dangerous. The local priests were disgusted by the presence of Danubian heretics in their city and wanted nothing more than to kill all of them. The locals could have attacked and slaughtered the Followers with the smallest provocation. The only thing holding them back was knowing that if the traders were killed, they wouldn’t be back the following year with their goods.

Danka noted the hostile expressions of the townsfolk and the bewildered stares of hoards of dirty, starving children as she rode out of the foreign town. What a thoroughly miserable place, she thought to herself. So this is what the rest of the world is like?

Danka was enormously relieved when the expedition crossed the bridge and returned to the blessed territory of the Duchy. So… now she could say she had seen a foreign land. Yes, it was true that her foreign experience was nothing more than spending a day in the marketplace of a town right on the other side of the border, but that was enough for her. She had learned many things during her trip, the most important of which was what it meant to be a Danubian. She could take pride in who she was and where she was from. The Duchy had plenty of faults and problems, but life there was certainly better than it was on the outside.

Danka was thrilled when she and her companions passed through the protection of the cliffs guarded by those blessed cannons and fortifications. As the expedition climbed the hill returning to Sebérnekt Ris, she was grateful to the gun crews and border guards. Yes, if what she saw and experienced in the foreign town was the life the foreigners had to offer, it was best to keep them out.

* * *

Two days after the trading expedition returned to the Followers’ compound, Danka and Káloyankt had to say goodbye to their three companions who, along with six other newly-initiated Followers from other places, were heading to the capitol to become Seminary students in the Great Temple. A sympathetic Priest provided them with identity papers giving them new names and biographies that did not mention anything about their membership in the Cult of the Ancients. In Danúbikt Móskt their lives would totally change. Not only would they have to suppress many of their beliefs and customs as Followers, but they’d also have to find marriage partners. Babáckt Yaga and Fítoreckt had warned them not to attempt to marry among themselves. They’d have to find different partners and maintain a professional distance from each other.

Danka, Káloyankt, and Ermin were part of a group remaining behind in Sebérnekt Ris when Babáckt Yaga and her entourage returned to the forest settlement. They became a medical team that performed surgeries, mostly on laborers and farmers suffering from broken bones or bad cuts from work-related accidents. They vaccinated children, treated infections, and performed autopsies.

In the middle of June, Ermin and his assistants were tasked by the local magistrate to determine the cause of death of a guild member who died under suspicious circumstances. Ermin determined that, sure enough, he had been poisoned. The Follower was called as a witness at the trial of the man’s nephew, who was suspected of wanting to take over the victim’s business. With the assistance of Danka and Káloyankt, Ermin had conducted his own investigation and found out where the nephew had purchased the ingredients to make the poison. The verdict was guilty and the sentence was separation of the soul from the body.

For the first time in her life Danka witnessed a public execution. At noon on the day following the trial the man was tied to a post. Five city guards with longbows lined up and in quick succession shot five arrows into the prisoner’s chest.

* * *

The Summer Solstice was approaching. Now that Danka and Káloyankt were officially Followers of the Ancients, they would travel with the others into the mountains for the annual celebration, to be held at the Altar of Blood-nourishment. Fítoreckt led his group to the sacrificial site along a narrow road approaching from the west; a section of the secret path Danka had not previously seen. She realized that she now knew the entire route running along the northern mountains from Sevérckt nad Gorádki to Sebérnekt Ris. If she ever needed to secretly move from one of those cities to the other, she didn’t have to travel the main road passing through the western valley.

The Followers spent the first day of the Solstice celebration completely naked. The day was filled with singing, dancing, and feasting. After sunset the elders lit the red lanterns and the celebrants spent the shortest night of the year having sex. As usual, the rule was that everyone had to make love to at least one person they had not previously met.

Danka made love to seven men that night. She decided to add a rule for anyone who wanted to copulate with her. Her lovers would have to lie on their backs and she would straddle them. Some refused, but she was pretty enough that plenty of others acquiesced. She totally loved being on top, feeling the pulsating penis pumping semen into her eager body. She experienced seven wonderful orgasms with her seven lovers. She was very sore towards the end, but she pushed herself and was rewarded with pleasure. When she finished, her vagina hurt, but the pain had resulted from something what was forbidden among the Christians and thus made her feel stronger.

This is the way Lilith fornicates, she thought to herself. This is the way she does it, and this is the way I will do it.

After spending the second day of the Solstice celebration resting, bathing, finishing off the previous day’s feast, and performing various rituals honoring the Ancients, the Followers dressed in their formal Cult outfits and prepared for the main part of their gathering. Over the past two months the Cult had captured eleven men who would be sacrificed. Nine of the men were fortune hunters, and the other two had attempted to kidnap the daughter of an Elder, without realizing who she was.

Danka proudly held her skull-staff and chanted with her companions as the terrified, struggling, screaming victims were dragged onto the altar one-by-one. Her Mistress was ready with her ancient dagger, naked as always with her body covered with chalk and charcoal in a pattern that made her look half-way between a skeleton and a ghoul. She stared into their eyes with a wild and cruel expression as she raised the knife. The red fire reflected in her eyes made her look truly demonic. The victims, every last one, screamed in terror as the Cult leader plunged the blade into their chests. It had to be that way, because ancient custom dictated that a victim had to be screaming when he was killed.

* * *

Ermin, Danka, and Káloyankt returned to Sebérnekt Ris with Fítoreckt’s group after the Solstice instead of traveling on to Babáckt Yaga’s forest settlement. Danka was perplexed by the arrangement. She had spent the past month wondering why she and Káloyankt were staying behind, why the others had left for the Seminary in the capital and she hadn’t. Babáckt Yaga and Fítoreckt knew their young disciple would be curious and that they owed her an answer. Fítoreckt offered to take Danka to the top of the hill so she could see the waterfall. Káloyankt, who already had seen the waterfall the previous year, spent the day in Sebérnekt Ris helping Elders prepare medications.

Danka and Fítoreckt mounted horses and rode up to the crest of the hill. The Elder allowed the girl to sit quietly and appreciate the scenery. She could see the lands of the foreigners to the north and the Duchy to the south. On the western shore of the East Danube River there were steep cliffs that made crossing the river from that direction impossible. She realized that Danubia was a natural fortress, a land in which its inhabitants could live in peace because it was so difficult to get into. Soon enough she would learn that peace was truly a gift from the Creator, a very fragile gift that could break at any time.

“Danka Síluckt, your Mistress asked me to bring you here so you can see for yourself some of the work of the Ancients and the Creator. But you also have questions, which you should now ask and I will attempt to answer.”

“Well… Alchemist Fítoreckt… I guess I’m curious about… the Great Temple… and us… why everyone… the young people… are having to go there.”

“The answer is that the Ancients have revealed to your Mistress and me that the remnants of the Old World are about to vanish. We, the Cult of the Ancients, are destined to disappear with the passing of those remnants. And yet, somehow the Old World must continue to safeguard the well-being of the Duchy. Our final tasking from the Ancients is to figure out how we can contribute when, as a Cult, we are no more. The only answer is to place our people in the heart of the Danubian Church. It is from there our inheritors will continue to guide the future of the Duchy. The Cult only has a few hundred members, while there are hundreds of thousands of Old Believers. So, if the Ancients indeed wish to continue watching over the Duchy’s people, who do you think they would favor?”

“I… I guess they’d favor the Church, Alchemist.”

“Exactly. They’d favor the Church, not the Cult. Your Mistress would say that it is not our Path in Life to question why that should be… why after being served for so long the Ancients would turn their backs on the Cult and favor the Church. She would argue that it is our Path in Life to simply accept what is happening with humility. I know the answer, however, even if your Mistress would argue that I am speaking with arrogance. Alchemist Babackt Yaga lives completely in the traditions of the past, and that is how she trains the people whose Paths in Life cross with hers. From your time with her, you know what it is like to live in the manner of the days of old, when our people lived among the trees. You can also understand that time has passed. Most people don’t live in the forests anymore. The future of the Duchy will be in the villages and cities, not in the Realm of Nature. The Ancients need to follow our people into the reality of the New World, but they cannot do so through the Followers.”

Fítoreckt paused to make sure Danka didn’t have any questions or comments. She did, but couldn’t put them into words.

The Elder continued: “Alchemist Babackt Yaga understands the will of the Ancients as much as I do. She also understands that her Path in Life is about to end, and when that happens the traditions of the forest will become nothing more than memories. A month ago she ceded leadership of the Cult to me, and the Elders voted in secret to allow that to happen. So, I am the one leading our transition, the one who is moving our people into the Danubian Church. It is our Path in Life to influence the Church by having our people join their Clergy. So, I have seen the future and am making the arrangements. With every passing year the Church will serve the Creator and the Ancients more and serve the Roman God less. The Ancients are finding their voice for the future, and the Followers in the forest are destined to be no more.”

“Then… if it’s our Path in Life to join the Old Believers’ Priesthood, why aren’t you sending me and Káloyankt? And… why just the two of us? I mean… Alchemist Babáckt Yaga told me she didn’t want me to stay with him… with Káloyankt, that is. Did she change her mind on that?”

“Not at all. Soon your Paths in Life will separate and the only thing you will keep of each other will be memories. Your lover’s Path in Life is to wait until his father dies, and then to return to Sevérckt nad Gorádki and take over his family’s household. He will become an important and influential man in that city, and when the time comes, he will use his wealth and position to serve the Ancients. He will live in comfort and dote upon his wife and children. Exactly the life you envisioned for yourself, is it not?”

“Yes, Alchemist. The life I want…”

“It is not your Path in Life to be his partner. You already know that. It is not your Path in Life to sit in luxury and watch your children grow and pass your time embroidering and listening to music and reading novels and gossiping with your friends. That life does not suit you. If you seek it, you would become a tool of the Profane One and bring grief into your household.”

“So… what is my Path in Life?”

“We don’t know. The Ancients have not yet revealed your destiny to us any more than they have revealed it to you. Your Mistress has desperately sought an answer concerning what to do with you. All I can say is that you must continue learning and improving your knowledge. Our time is short and you must bear witness to your world and learn as much as you can.”

* * *

At the beginning of July, Ermin led a team of Followers to a farming center with a large water-mill called Dagurúckt-Tók. The town was about halfway between the nation’s capital and Nagorónkti-Serífkti. On the map it appeared tantalizingly close to Rika Héckt-nemát, which lay to the southeast. However, the two city councils bitterly rivaled each other and citizens from each town were prohibited from visiting the other. The feud was so severe that the residents had torn down a stone bridge along the road connecting the two towns in the early spring of 1750.

The Clergy members of Dagurúckt-Tók were Old Believers and welcomed the Followers. The welcome was warm and appreciative, unlike the grudging tolerance granted by the Senior Priest of neighboring Nagorónkti-Serífkti. They were housed in a residence owned by the local Clergy and received the best food produced in the town. The city council provided a wagon and several mules to assist the Followers’ vaccination campaign and attending injuries.

The Followers spent the next two months attending to the medical needs of Dagurúckt-Tók and the surrounding villages. Danka perfected her skills performing simple operations and re-setting broken bones. She assisted Ermin as he prepared smallpox vaccine and ether for surgeries. She attended several births, including one during which she and another female follower managed to save a baby who was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.

Over the summer Danka continued to make love to both Káloyankt and Ermin. At the beginning she tried to keep her relationship with the Elder secret from her younger partner. She could not keep the sexual part of her relationship with the older man secret because of the close proximity of everyone’s rooms, but did try to hide the emotional part. It was accepted that Followers were not monogamous in their sex lives and Ermin was a widower. However, as the summer progressed, Danka understood that she increasingly enjoyed Ermin’s maturity and was bored trying to converse with Káloyankt.

Káloyankt did not help his situation with his reaction. He was smart enough not to openly confront Danka about Ermin, but he insisted on having sex with her as much as possible. She responded by forcing him to lie on his back so she could pretend to be Lilith when she was with him. She forced him to assume submissive positions for love-making and he always complied. The more he went along with her demands, the more the relationship began to deteriorate. It was as though he had lost all of his backbone with her. She lost respect for Káloyankt and understood the time had come to completely disengage herself from him.

Instead of simply telling her lover that she did not want to have sex with him anymore, she decided to see if she could leave him in the arms of another woman. Dagurúckt-Tók had a perfect candidate, the Senior Priest’s daughter, who had braided her hair immediately before the Followers arrived in July. She had noticed the girl looking at Káloyankt and also at her, with a jealous expression. So… the Priest’s daughter was interested in Káloyankt. Good. He had a lot to offer her. Perhaps it would help if her father knew about Káloyankt’s background and that he came from one of the wealthiest families in Sevérckt nad Gorádki.

Danka struck up several conversations with the Priest and spent a couple of days setting up a meeting between her lover and the Clergyman’s daughter. At first the Priest thought she was trying to seduce him, but no… it seemed the Follower just wanted to talk. They discussed politics and differences between various city councils. Danka kept pushing the conversation to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. Finally the opportunity came for her to mention that one of her fellow Followers was from that city and heir to a large fortune.

The Priest took the bait. He and his wife decided to have the young man eat dinner with their family. That certainly was a bizarre situation, a Follower sitting at the table of a Priest. The Clergy members quickly verified that Káloyankt indeed came from a wealthy family. From that day forward they invited him to dinner on a daily basis. He wanted to refuse, but Ermin angrily insisted that he had no right to jeopardize the good relations the Followers enjoyed with the town council in Dagurúckt-Tók.

“You will accept the honor of sitting at that Priest’s table and you will serve the rest of us by doing so. You will behave yourself with that family and do everything you can to accommodate them.”

Káloyankt approached Danka to explain the situation and beg her to forgive him. Danka responded with words and thoughts that seemed not really to be her own: “There’s nothing to forgive, Káloyankt. Don’t you understand the will of the Ancients? It’s not your Path in Life to stay with me. You can’t offer a life that would suit me. And you need to take a hard look at me. I’m a peasant. I’m a peasant with some education, but I’m still a peasant. How well do you think I’d fit in with all your fancy neighbors in your father’s house?”

“I don’t care about him, or the neighbors, or his house. He’s dead to me. That life is no longer mine. I belong in the forest. The only person I care about is you.”

“Then you need to stop caring about me. I’m telling you it is not my Path in Life to be your wife. That honor belongs to another woman, not me. And you already know who she is.”

“The Priest’s daughter?”

Danka nodded.

“No. I don’t want her. I don’t love her.”

“You don’t love her? Do you think that matters? Do you think what you feel for me matters? Because it doesn’t! You need to find a respectable wife who is acceptable to your father’s friends and then you need to go home and assume your responsibilities to your family! That is your Path in Life! You’re not going back to the forest, you’re not going back to Sebérnekt Ris, and you are not staying with me! You have your responsibilities to go home and redeem your family’s name from the dishonor of your father! You need the right partner to do that and that person is not me!”

“…and my feelings for you don’t matter?”

“No! They don’t!”

“I mean… it almost sounds like… that you don’t love me… that you never loved me…”

“It doesn’t matter, Káloyankt! Why can’t you understand? It doesn’t matter whether I love you or not! I can’t stay with you! It’s not my Path in Life! It’s not yours, either!”

Káloyankt sat quietly, his eyes full of tears. Danka coldly concluded the conversation. “I’m planning to spend the night with Ermin. Meanwhile, you need to prepare for your dinner with the Priests and their daughter. She loves you. I don’t. Remember that the next time you talk to her or think about me.”

With that, Danka left the room. As soon as she stepped outside, she felt sick. She was horrified by the shabby treatment she had inflicted on a wonderful man who she really did care for. She resisted the temptation to go back and beg him to forgive her. She knew that she did what had to be done, but it was no consolation. She hated herself, every bit as much as she hated herself when she gave her body to Bagatúrckt.

* * *

Two weeks later Káloyankt received word that his father had died. Included in the correspondence was a will that stipulated he would inherit his family’s fortune, but not until he married a Christian wife in a Christian ceremony. The will also stated that the servants would not be paid until the conditions of the will were met and Káloyankt presented himself to the local Priest with his new wife and paperwork proving she was a Christian married in a Christian Church. The will did not stipulate that the wife had to be a True Believer; just that she had to be Christian.

Káloyankt knew that he was obligated to go home and take care of his family’s servants. He understood his Path in Life and his duty to those who depended on him. He proposed to the Priest’s daughter and she accepted. The entire town turned out for the wedding and the city council provided an armed escort to make sure the bride and groom made it safely to their new home in Sevérckt nad Gorádki.

As she watched the entourage depart, Danka wondered about the very suspicious timing of the death of Káloyankt’s father and the conditions stipulated in that will. Very interesting that the father would die precisely at the moment the Followers needed Káloyankt to return to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. Very interesting that the will would clearly insist on him having a Christian wife precisely at the moment such a partner was available. Not a True Believer, just a Christian.

Babáckt Yaga knew everything there was to know about poisons and quietly entering people’s houses. She also was an expert at forging documents. It wasn’t hard to figure out what really happened…

* * *

Káloyankt spent his remaining time in the Realm of the Living serving the Ancients and the Creator. He took his father’s place in the Sevérckt nad Gorádki city council. A few years after he returned home, he used his family’s influence to assist the Old Believers when they seized control of the local church from the True Believers.

He was kind to his wife, and later to his children and grandchildren. However, during all the years he lived with the Priest’s daughter, he could never love her. His heart always longed for Danka. He spent the rest of his life writing mysterious stories, poems, and songs about his lost love of the forest. He published his work under various pen-names, giving the residents of Sevérckt nad Gorádki the impression they were written by different men. The works were infinitely depressing and became favorite reading throughout the northern part of the Duchy.

Káloyankt had to keep his writings and his feelings secret from his family, so he never mentioned himself or Danka by name. When fans of the various writings talked about them and speculated about the ideal girl and the author’s tragic love for her, they usually referred to her as “the girl in the poems, the one with no name”.

Historian's Note 01: One of a wife’s duties to her husband in traditional Danubian society was shaving. Normally a woman would shave her husband’s face once per week and her husband’s scalp once every three weeks. If a man lost his wife, he would not shave for 60 days as a symbol of mourning. A man who was not yet married, widowed, in the military, or traveling could be shaved by any available woman, as long as her social status was inferior to his.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Historian's Note 02: In traditional Danubian society, a man of higher social status normally took a woman of lower social status from behind. The lower-class woman presented herself to her partner in the customary submissive position before sexual intercourse. As mentioned in the main narrative, she placed her hands on a table or other surface such as a fence and bent over to display her backside. According to protocol, once she assumed the position, she could not speak or move her hands until given permission. It was understood that when a woman presented herself in such a way, her lover was free to do with her as he saw fit; to include vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, or punishment. The submissive posture was not commonly used by women having sex with a social equal, which would have made Danka’s behavior under those circumstances unusual among the Followers.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Historian's Note 03: The Christians living just north of the border were hostile to the Danubians because Sebérnekt Ris was run by Old Believers who were heavily influenced by the Followers of the Ancients. The Old Believers were increasingly turning away from Christianity and adapting pre-Christian beliefs, something that foreign Christians looked upon with horror.

The True Believers in Danubia were the most “Christian” of the three religious sects in the Duchy at the time. They accepted widely held beliefs concerning the divinity of the Son of Man and the virgin birth. Mary and other Christian Saints were venerated as Ancients, but even among the True Believers the Virgin Mary did not have the same importance that she had for Christians living outside the Duchy.

Only men could officially be priests among the True Believers. Unmarried women could become nuns, which in practice allowed them to serve as Priestesses. The practice contrasted with the Old Believers, who insisted on having an equal number of Priests and Priestesses, all of whom had to be married to other Clergy members to be ordained.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Historian's Note 04: Death by arrows was the only accepted form of execution in the Duchy at that time, and it was considered a point of honor for a group of guards to kill their prisoner with the first volley. The attitude of Danubian culture towards killing a prisoner was to do it as quickly as possible and avoid being overly gruesome about it. The Danubian method of killing criminals to minimize suffering and gore contrasted with most of Europe throughout the Middle Ages and the period of the Enlightenment. It is interesting to note the method of execution changed only once during the Duchy’s history. In 1790 the Grand Duke ordered that five muskets would be used to kill prisoners instead of five longbows.

Firing squads of police officers using modern rifles remain in use today. In recent decades the number of executions in Danubia has ranged from 6 to 9 per year. Offenses warranting capital punishment include un-provoked murder, sexual assault on a child, treason resulting in damage to Danubia’s national security, an overt act of war against Danubia, and being the leader of a criminal organization that has committed acts of violence. All executions are now carried out in the courtyard of the Central Police Station in the nation’s capital. Danubia is the only member country of the European Community in which criminals are still executed, because leaving the nation’s judicial system intact was one of the Parliament’s conditions for joining the EU. There is no system for imprisonment and it is unlikely Danubian culture would ever accept the practice of jailing criminals. The only way criminals can be punished in Danubia is by judicial collaring or death.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Chapter Ten – The Messenger

Danka felt very restless and ill-at-ease after Káloyankt departed Dagurúckt-Tók with his new wife. It was strange to consider how different the girl’s life would be from that of Danka… almost completely opposite. Her parents were keen on marrying her off as soon as her hair was braided, and her very first suitor became her husband. She would never find out what falling in love with more than one man would be like, nor would she ever experience the traveling, hardships, and various adventures that had been Danka’s Path in Life over the past two years. She would never be humiliated or have to run away from anything. The only hardship she’d ever have to endure would be childbirth, which was a hardship common to all women. Danka wondered if Káloyankt might become bored with his wife, but she knew him well enough to understand that if he was bored with her, he’d keep those emotions hidden.

The other Followers did not know that Danka had set up her lover’s new relationship precisely to get rid of him. Initially most of her companions thought it was Káloyankt who had left Danka, to take advantage of replacing her with a girl who was much closer to his social class. By the standards of Danubian society such a move would have made sense for a young man in Káloyankt’s situation. Danka figured it would be best to let people believe whatever they wanted to believe. If anyone asked her about her lover, she simply responded: “What happened was between me and him. It was the will of the Creator that forced us to separate. If you must know, consult with the Ancients, and perhaps you will receive your answer.” Her attitude was misinterpreted by her companions and the townsfolk as typical peasant’s stoicism.

Ermin vaguely hoped that now, with his rival out of the way, he might convince Danka to become more committed to him. She did consider him as her primary lover, but she had no intention of limiting with whom she would have sex. She made herself available to the town’s most important men, starting with Káloyankt’s father-in-law. Since she had introduced his daughter to her future husband, the Priest allowed Danka to use a secret hidden outdoor courtyard to rinse off after finishing her operations for the day. Danka knew the Priest was probably watching her, but she didn’t mind because the courtyard was secluded and a nice quiet spot to gather her thoughts. Now that Káloyankt was gone, she wanted to see if the Clergyman was indeed watching her, and if so, would it be possible to seduce him. She spent longer periods of time in the courtyard, alternating between bathing and sunning herself while reading. She read in languid seductive positions, spreading her legs and casually running her hand over her thighs or massaging her vulva.

She paid attention to the Priest whenever she talked to him, noticing he was increasingly nervous. She casually commented: “It’s really nice in the courtyard in the afternoon, Priest. I wish to thank you for letting me use it. It seems such a pity you couldn’t enjoy it as well.”

The next day Danka passed through the church instead of entering the courtyard from the back. She gave the Priest a seductive smile and proceeded to her bath. Overcome with desire, he looked around to make sure no one was watching at that moment, and then followed her. She entered the courtyard, leaving the door ajar, and quickly undressed. She knew the Priest was watching. She approached a stone bench and placed her hands on it, with her bottom facing the door and her audience.

The Priest had gone too far to back away. The young Follower knew he had been watching her. She knew he wanted her. The man’s desire took over and he entered the courtyard, shutting the door behind him. She looked over her shoulder to give him a seductive smile. He placed his hand on her bottom, massaged her backside for a moment, and pulled off his robe and hat. Already he was hard. He fondled the girl’s labia and touched her clitoris. She was wet and ready. He entered her and thrust, letting out a series of strange-sounding grunts. Danka had a hard time suppressing a laugh.

She spent the night making love to Ermin, but her mind was on what she would do with the Priest the following day. Now that she had succeeded in seducing the Clergyman, her next step was to take away the illusion that he was in charge of what was happening. She figured that he’d come into the courtyard as soon as she had her dress off and that it would not be necessary to assume the submissive position. She was right about that. The moment she was naked, there he was. She did not give him a chance to take off his robe, but instead hugged him and lifted it off. His hat fell to the ground and rolled across the tiles. She hugged him and caressed his hardening penis. Holding and controlling him by his erection, she guided him to the stone bench and pushed him onto his back. She massaged his chest to keep him from trying to get up. Then she mounted him and positioned herself so he’d enter her. Again he made those weird grunting noises, but Danka was too caught up in her own fantasies to notice or care.

I’m in control. This man is doing what I want, copulating in the way I have chosen. This is what Lilith did… and this is my Path in Life. I will become Lilith… I will seduce the self-righteous and strip them of their illusion of piety.

* * *

Danka never bathed in the courtyard again. She was done with the Priest and was ready to move on to her next target, a town councilman. He was followed by the director of the local builder’s guild, two other councilmen, and the town’s largest land-owner. Danka’s pattern was always the same. She initially seduced her target by finding an excuse to take off her dress and assume the submissive position. During the second love-making session she silently insisted, through caresses and positioning her lover onto his back, on being on top. She became hungry for more lovers, more experiences, and finding the most powerful men.

All men are weak. It doesn't matter how pious or important they might be, they're all weak. They can't resist the vagina. I will control them… I will have power…

Ermin was aware of Danka’s actions, but he failed to do anything about the situation. He was involved in his own extra affair, with the widow of a local landowner. Just like Danka, he had illusions of greatness through sex. He was hoping to assume control of the woman's estate, from which he would create a safe haven for Cult members in the heart of the Western Valley. He let Danka have her adventures, figuring there would be no harm in allowing her to have some fun.

During the final week of August, Danka was working on the leader of the town council, the most important man in Dagurúckt-Tók and the oldest man she had ever tried to seduce. She entered his study and flattered him into thinking that she considered him attractive. In his case she did not even bother with letting him first take her in the submissive position. He was too old to achieve a spontaneous erection, so she laid him on his back and massaged his penis until he finally managed to get hard. She mounted him and placed her hands on his chest. He smiled and grunted. She felt his penis weakly pumping into her vagina. Then her world went black, and a pair of cruel yellow eyes took over her vision. The Destroyer laughed… and faded away.

The old man suddenly jerked, let out a gurgling gasp, and went limp. His arms fell to his sides and his eyes stared blankly into space. Danka felt her heart jump into her throat when she realized her lover was not breathing. She pushed his chest and tried forcing air into his mouth. Nothing. She jumped up, realizing the councilman’s soul had just separated from his body. Terror welled up inside her. She tried to revive the official several more times, but he remained inert. He was definitely dead. Danka frantically put on her Follower’s outfit and dressed the corpse. The body seemed unbelievably heavy as she rolled it around and pulled on the clothes. Sweat poured down the girl’s panicky face as she tried to remove all evidence of what had just happened.

Danka’s mind was blank from terror. She no longer felt like the all-powerful Lilith. She ran outside, holding her head with her hands, trying to think of what to do. Ermin… she’d have to tell Ermin what happened and see if he could think of something. She ran around the town asking for him and finally found out that he was setting the broken arm of a guard who had fallen off a ladder. He handed off the operation to his assistant and followed the girl outside.

Danka frantically told Ermin about the official’s death. She was so frightened that she did not try to hide any details from him. She knew that she was in deep trouble and that her only hope was to rely on him to come up with a solution. He didn’t say anything to admonish her, because that would have to come later. His only response was to tell her they needed to return to the council building and confront the town’s leaders with the truth.

The town’s clergy, guild leaders, and council staff already were gathered outside the city hall. Several assistants angrily pointed at Danka as soon as she was in their sight. They had seen her running from the building just before they found their leader dead. The guards ran up to the Followers with their crossbows drawn, but Ermin calmly held up his hand.

“You will listen to me! We are returning, are we not? If we wished to flee as common murderers, would we be here, of all places? Would we not be running away from this city as fast as we could? We are delivering ourselves into your hands. Your elders will listen to us before you release your bolts!”

Ermin led Danka into the main council chamber. The city’s leaders were sitting at their chairs, minus their senior chief. Danka trembled, partly because she had seduced the majority of the men sitting at that table. Ermin suggested they order the guards out of the room and close the doors. Fortunately, the elders acquiesced.

Ermin told Danka to explain what happened. With tears in her eyes and a trembling voice she described the heart attack and her efforts to revive the councilman. The experience was unnerving and humiliating, because she had made love to several of her listeners in the exact same manner. None of the councilmen had known that she had seduced any of the others. The looked at each other and realized they all were implicated in Danka’s behavior.

Ermin broke the silence: “The Senior Councilman’s soul did indeed separate from his body because of a heart attack, my Lords. That is the truth; it was a simple heart attack. I deeply regret our failure as doctors, but he was 65 years old, and his time in the Realm of the Living had to end. This girl exhausted her knowledge doing what she could to revive him. When her efforts failed, she ran to advise me so I could determine if anything more could be done for the gentleman. I regret to say that nothing more can be done, that the man’s soul separated from his body. I therefore request your permission to remove my subordinate from your city. It is best that we deal with her, which we will.”

The council sat quietly for a moment. Finally the first member Danka had seduced spoke: “Yes, it is best that you leave, Follower, as soon as you can pack your belongings. Be gone by sunset. Get that dishonored girl out of our sight and don’t let her talk to anyone on your way out. You will understand that she is never to return to this city. We don’t want you back either. Someone else in your group will take charge. Stay quiet about this and get out.”

Ermin gave Danka an angry look, because now his own ambitions had been disrupted. He couldn’t work on seducing the widow if he wasn’t allowed in the town. He saluted the council members and left the chamber. Danka said nothing as she followed him. The Followers loaded and mounted two mules (which they had to purchase) and rode out of Dagurúckt-Tók. They were away from the town and headed north within an hour of leaving the city hall. Danka said nothing, but was terrified as she wondered how the Followers disciplined a member who had brought dishonor to the Cult.

Ermin was indeed angry at Danka. He could not fault her for having sex with other men if he was doing exactly the same thing with other women, but her behavior had been totally reckless. The Followers were extremely lucky the scandal had happened in Dagurúckt-Tók, where there was enough goodwill that the entire Cult would not be judged by the actions of a single member. Had the incident happened anywhere else, it was very likely the group, or at least Danka and Ermin, would have ended up tied to posts in the city square with five arrows sticking out of their chests. Ironically, it was also fortunate that Danka had seduced so many of the council members, men who did not want their own humiliating involvement with their guest to get out.

The official story was that the city elder had a heart attack and young Follower had been summoned to save him. She failed and the council members were angry at that failure. The locals were skeptical. Now… why would the town council be angry at a doctor who couldn’t save an old man who died from natural causes typical of a person that age? Wasn’t that unreasonable?

The sexual portion of the story came out, mostly as guesses and rumors. Several conflicting versions of the councilman’s death at the hands of the young temptress circulated around the town. The young Follower’s sexual appetite and abilities were greatly exaggerated, especially when various men who had never met her falsely claimed to have been her lovers. She became the girl-demon of Dagurúckt-Tók, the cruel seductress of the valley. Eventually the tales became totally fanciful and Danka became a semi-supernatural being, in many ways similar to her heroine Lilith.

* * *

Ermin and his assistant rode north for three days. He was very worried that two lightly-armed civilians, sitting on a pair of slow-moving pack mules, could be easy targets for brigands. When possible, he and Danka traveled with groups of traders or anyone else who happened to be going in the same direction. The practical concern of traveling delayed anything he wanted to say concerning her behavior in Dagurúckt-Tók. Danka was extremely grateful for the respite, but all too soon the two Followers passed the final village and the wooded mountains loomed ahead. Following custom, as soon as they were out of sight from the open fields, Danka and Ermin stripped off their clothing. They rode a short distance into the trees before stopping to give the mules a chance to drink from a nearby stream. Danka, now naked and feeling very vulnerable, waited for her companion to say something. He glanced at her and commented:

“Do you remember our conversation last April, when we talked about the birch grove?”

“Yes, I remember that.”

“I’m sure you’d agree it’s time we pay that location a visit, don’t you think?”

Danka felt a shiver running through her body. So… they would spend the promised afternoon in the grove, but it would not be an afternoon of erotic play. It was obvious Ermin planned to inflict real punishment. She understood, under the circumstances, that she deserved a whipping. She was actually relieved; if Ermin punished her, then it was less likely she’d have to endure punishment from Babáckt Yaga. She suspected chastisement from her Mistress would be infinitely worse than anything Ermin could inflict on her.

After a few moments of silence, she desolately looked at her companion. “When you’re finished, do you think you can forgive me?”

“I’ll try, Danka. That’s all I can promise right now. I’ll try to forgive you. I’m well-aware that harboring anger won’t serve either of us.”

The nearest birch grove was about an hour’s ride further into the forest. It was an idyllic clearing, a rare spot where the sun’s light and warmth reached through the leaves and illuminated the ground. The Followers would be making camp in that location. It already was mid-day and Ermin knew that by the time he finished, there would be no point in loading up the mules only to have to unload them a couple of hours later. After the animals were unsaddled and the camp was set up, Danka quietly and sadly looked at her mentor, awaiting further instructions. He handed her a small sharp knife.

“You’ll need to select ten good rods and prepare them. Cut the pieces about a half-fathom in length, peel off the bark, and leave them in the stream to soak. Make sure there are no sharp points sticking out. That’s very important, no sharp points. I don’t want to cut you.”

While Ermin set up a cooking fire, Danka proceeded to the birches. She searched around and found the first four suitable-looking candidates. She followed her companion's instructions by making sure the switches were properly cut on both ends. She peeled off the bark and trimmed the bumps. The implements were not heavy, but she knew the force of the blows would be concentrated along a thin line and the pain would be very sharp.

She put the prepared switches in the cold water and looked for the remaining six. As she found and cleaned additional implements, she thought about the saying "pride is greatest before the fall". She was humiliated, not by the fact a man who she cared for felt justified in switching her, but by her belief that she did deserve to be punished. She did not feel that she had done anything immoral, but she jeopardized the Followers' good standing in a friendly town through reckless behavior, which was much worse.

As her stomach churned and her bottom tingled in fear, Danka thought about her past. She had not been punished since the day she was arrested, but as an adolescent, she was used to whippings. Both her parents punished her for the slightest infraction, real or imagined. However, they never used switches. The nemesis of her backside had been a heavy leather strap that her father used to haul bundles of firewood. The loud crack of the leather and the screams of the older Síluckt daughter were a familiar sound around the day-laborers' settlement during the years prior to her departure.

After cutting the final switch, she pulled the others out of the water and carried them to the campsite. She had wondered what a whipping from birch rods would feel like. Well… she was about to find out. She approached Ermin. Near the edge of the clearing there was a thick log lying on the ground, from the remains of a large tree that had toppled over a few weeks before. Ermin was standing next to the log, indicating that was where he planned to punish his companion.

“I’d prefer not to have to tie you. If you can obey my instructions, that would be best for both of us.”

Danka responded by holding out the switches. Ermin took them and gave each one a test swipe through the air. The girl flinched at the swishing sound. He tossed one switch aside because it was too thick, but was satisfied with the others. He was pleased the girl had not attempted to choose implements that would be too light. All of the rods would hurt when applied to her unprotected body.

Ermin took the first switch and tapped Danka’s hands. He used the rod to point at the log, indicating he expected the girl to firmly place her hands on the top. With a couple more taps between her legs he motioned that she needed to spread her feet. She stood quietly, trembling slightly, but otherwise was motionless. The elder touched the switch to her base of her bottom and gently rubbed it on her bare skin.

He positioned himself, drew back, and delivered a sharp blow to the girl’s naked bottom. Danka tensed up and held her breath as the pain mounted, but did her best not to move. Ermin watched as the welt from the first stroke rose and darkened on her skin, to gauge how hard he needed to hit. Satisfied by the first weal, he tapped her bottom and struck hard a second time. Tears welled up in Danka’s eyes, but she didn’t cry out or try to move. She was stoic and used to suffering, so she was able to stay quiet through blows that would have sent a city girl running and begging for mercy.

After the first ten strokes Ermin tossed aside the first switch because it was beginning to show signs of wear. He massaged the rising welts on his companion’s trembling bottom. She was covered with sweat and tears were running down her cheeks, but she had not cried out or made any noise. He went very slowly delivering the next ten blows; striking hard, waiting for the welt to appear, tracing it with his fingertips, positioning himself, and delivering the next stroke. It was clear from Danka’s heavy breathing, sweat, tears, and trembling that she was suffering, but she was determined to face her punishment with as much bravery as she could.

Ermin was completely aroused by the time he tossed aside the second switch and picked up the third. Danka was the perfect image of submission, with the cruel welts accentuating her very sexy position. He struck hard and slowly through an additional ten blows, before tossing aside the third switch. Danka’s bottom was badly marked up from thirty hard strokes, but her thighs and shoulders were still uninjured and ready for additional discipline. However, Ermin couldn’t continue. He was too aroused by the sight of the girl in front of him. He ran his hand down her back and fondled her welt-covered bottom. Then he slipped his hand between her legs and explored her sweaty vulva. Danka surprised both him and herself by becoming wet and aroused. She stood up and spent a long time kissing Ermin and holding him tight while he fondled and squeezed her sore backside. He bent her over the log again and ordered her to spread her legs, but it was to enter her, not to continue punishing her. The sex was rough, hard, and painful, but both partners gasped and groaned with an exquisite orgasm.

So… that was Danka’s punishment for causing such a huge scandal: a mere thirty blows from a birch rod. The remaining switches went unused and Danka’s shoulders and thighs were spared. Ermin knew that he was letting the girl off way too easily, but he couldn’t help himself. She was just too sexy for him to resist. As he climaxed and pumped semen into her, his resentment exited his body through his penis. The girl had caused all kinds of trouble with her behavior, but he just couldn’t stay angry at her.

* * *

Ermin and Danka spent the next two days working their way towards Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. Danka walked most of the way, not keen on having to sit in a saddle with her entire weight pressing on her welts. Ermin followed, happy to watch his partner’s attractive naked body as she walked along the path.

During the trip they stopped several times to rest the mules and have sex. Danka carefully observed her mentor and submitted to his desires whenever there was a hint that he would want to make love. She wanted to make sure his anger had passed and that he’d forgive her. Also, they still had to explain to their Mistress why they had to return a few weeks early from their summer assignment. Danka needed Ermin to be as supportive as possible when that moment had to be faced.

By the second day it was apparent that Ermin had indeed forgiven Danka. He deeply cared for her, even though their relationship was nowhere close to anything considered “normal”, even among the Followers. At their final stop before reaching the settlement, he took her in his arms and held her. He didn’t say anything; he just needed to hold her.

* * *

When they entered the familiar streambeds in which the Followers had planted so many of their alchemy ingredients, Danka noticed that Ermin seemed very worried. His concerns had nothing to do with the scandal in Dagurúckt-Tók. He could feel that something wasn’t right.

As they came closer to the settlement, Danka smelled a whiff of smoke. It was not the familiar smell coming from the kitchen’s cave-charcoal, but smoke from wood instead. When she shared her observation with her mentor, he responded by digging into his saddlebag and unpacking two sets of brigand disguises. He loaded a crossbow while Danka got dressed. He then took out a wooden box and a sling. He handed the box to Danka and told her to open it, but to be very careful handling the contents. The box contained four hollowed-out goose eggs. Two of the eggs had a yellow stripe painted on their shells and the other two were marked with a red stripe.

“When I tell you, you’ll need to hand me an egg. I’ll let you know which color. Do NOT bump them and keep them upright. When I toss it, put your face to the ground and cover your eyes.”

They left the mules behind and cautiously made their way towards the settlement. The smell of smoke became stronger. They heard men’s voices, mixed with an occasional bang or crash and the whinnying of horses. Ermin motioned for Danka to wait while he crept ahead to see what was going on. Danka spent the longest moments of her life waiting for him to return. When he came back his face was ashen and his eyes wide with terror. However, he was not about to retreat. He slung his crossbow over his back and prepared his sling. He whispered to the girl to follow him and reminded her to be very careful handling the box of eggs.

The voices grew louder and the smoke grew thicker as the two Followers approached the settlement. Danka peeked through the bushes and observed three burning roofs, from the sleeping quarters that had been set on fire. There were several corpses on the ground and five more hanging from the large tree that was closest to Babáckt Yaga’s study. She also made out a crudely-built cross that appeared to have a body hanging on it, although she couldn’t be sure because the cross was facing the other direction.

Danka noticed that Ermin was trembling. Doing everything he could to stay calm; he checked his sling and stuck out his free hand.

“Yellow egg. Cover your face when I throw. Then get a red one ready. With the red, cover your ears.”

When Danka handed Ermin the egg, he placed it in his sling and stood up. He swung the sling several times before releasing his projectile towards the camp. Danka put her face down and covered her eyes just in time protect her sight from the brightest flash she had ever seen. Immediately the compound was filled with screaming. As soon as the flash subsided, Danka remembered her instructions to hand over a red-striped egg. Ermin took it, stood up, twirled the sling, and released it. The flash was much less, but there was a tremendous bang that made Danka’s ears ring.

Ermin shouted: “Yellow egg!” Danka’s hands shook as she managed to extract the second yellow egg from the box, nearly dropping it. Again Ermin stood up and swung his sling. A couple of arrows flew in his direction, but he managed to release the egg and duck in time to avoid the flash.

“Red egg, then the crossbow satchel!” Ermin released the final egg and threw himself onto the ground. Danka knew she needed to cover her ears against the bang, which seemed to rattle the earth and sent the men and horses in the camp screaming. Ermin took the crossbow bolts and pulled the weapon off his shoulders. He was not a good shot, so he had to get close to the edge of the camp to aim at a target. He picked a man who seemed to still be able to fight and aimed at him. He missed the man’s chest, but managed to hit his thigh.

The assailants were still alive, but after two blinding flashes and two explosions they were in no condition to fight effectively. Danka was so scared that she had pissed herself, but she knew that she could not keep hiding while Ermin struggled with his crossbow. She noticed that two nearby men were screaming with their eyes covered and that one of them had dropped his sword. She ran out of the bushes, grabbed the weapon, and clumsily hacked at their necks. Ermin managed to get off another shot and nailed a man in the stomach. Danka saw three blinded horses crazily running towards her and barely had time to get out of their way. The panicked animals charged into the woods with a series of tremendous crashes as they ran into trees and bushes they couldn’t see.

Words could not describe the chaos in the settlement at that moment. Half of the buildings were on fire, the blinded assailants and their horses were staggering around, and dozens of escaped farm animals were running in every direction.

Danka saw Ermin frantically trying to reload his weapon. She held out her sword to him and screamed: “Forget the crossbow, use this!” Ermin took the sword and proceeded to attack three assailants who had started to recover from the explosions. Danka grabbed another sword and frantically hacked at two more men who were crawling around on the ground.

The fight was over within minutes. Ermin and Danka ran around the compound together and hacked eight more men to death. They looked up at the corpses in the trees, all of them Cult elders. The corpses of a few more Followers were on the ground. Then their attention turned towards the cross. The person tied to it was Babáckt Yaga. She was still somewhat alive, but her hands had darkened from lack of circulation and her shoulders were horribly extended.

Ermin and Danka knew they were still in extreme danger. Undoubtedly the only reason they had re-taken the settlement with relatively little effort was because the majority of the camp’s assailants were scouring the woods looking for more Cult members. Still, there was no way they could leave their leader hanging on a cross while they made their escape. With great care and effort they managed to untie her hands and take her down. They took her into the wrecked kitchen, where Ermin managed to administer some opium to lessen her pain. It was clear she would not survive, but Ermin hoped that she might be able to tell him what happened and who was responsible for the attack before her soul separated from her body. When she had recovered enough to realize she no longer was hanging on the cross, she opened her eyes and tried to figure out who was with her.

“Pain… such pain… release…”

“Alchemist. We are here, Ermin and Danka. Do you understand? Ermin and Danka. We took you down. They crucified you.”

“Yes… crucified… like Son of Man… ironic… ha…”

“Who did this? What happened?”

“Don’t know… find out…”

Ermin was about to ask something else, but Babáckt Yaga gasped and struggled to speak.

“Instructions… my study… hidden… third board left of window… hollow… take them… go… get out… escape…”

Babáckt Yaga tried to speak some more, but it was obvious she had spent what little energy she had issuing her final statement. Ermin ordered Danka to run to the lab and find out what was in those instructions. She climbed into the room, for the first time going up there alone. The place was completely ransacked with everything broken and lying on the floor. The collection of books, representing centuries of hard, careful research, lay torn apart and discarded. The barrels and jars of alchemy ingredients had been broken open and the room smelled toxic. Danka used a metal spoon to pry at the boards to the left of the window. One of them opened up, and a set of folded letters fell out.

Danka was just about to leave when she noticed her bucket lying under a pile of discarded linen. Next to the bucket were her other belongings: the letter from Tuko Orsktackt, the forged Church letter, the silver coin and dagger he had given her, and most important of all, the counterfeit penance collar. After tearing up the study so badly, how was it possible those idiots could have missed an item as valuable as that collar? There was another precious item remaining in the room, worth far more than even a counterfeit penance collar. Tossed under a broken chair, but still intact, were two jars of mysterious blue powder. Danka suspected the assailants must have assumed their contents was paint or dye and thus not worth taking at the moment. She replaced the lids and put the jars in her bucket. The other valuable ingredients, such as the imported ephedrine and opium, were missing and the jars containing them smashed.

Danka looked around the study, knowing it was the last time she or anyone else from the Cult would have a chance to see it. She pushed some torn books out of the way and saw a brass portrait holder. There were two small portraits inside, of a young man and a young woman that had been painted in the style of the previous century. She assumed the woman must have been her Mistress at a younger age. She wondered about the man. Well, she’d have time to pursue that mystery later. She dropped the portraits into her bucket and continued looking around. There was nothing else of value in the room that had not either been destroyed or looted.

She climbed down the ladder and ran back to the kitchen. Ermin was calmly sitting next to Babáckt Yaga’s corpse. While Danka was absent he had given the alchemist a final strong dose of opium to allow her soul to separate from her body in peace. When Danka handed over Babáckt Yaga’s letters, Ermin briefly glanced through them. He thought over what to do next. After a few seconds, he glanced at Danka’s bucket, remembering it was the same bucket she had been carrying when he had first seen her at the beginning of the previous summer. The bucket reminded him of the girl’s fake penance collar.

“Did you find your Church collar, by any chance?”


“Then you need to return to the mules, put it on, and go back down the mountain. I need you to take these letters to Alchemist Fítoreckt. You need to leave immediately. May the Ancients bless and protect you.”

“But… what about you?”

“My Path in Life is to remain here and exact our Mistress’s vengeance on our assailants. These men were not here alone. I suspect there are others, and they’re coming back as we speak because of the noise we just made. I’ll destroy the settlement when they return. Those are my final instructions from our Mistress. So you need to go.”

“I’m not leaving you.”

“Yes, you are. Alchemist Fítoreckt needs to know what happened here. You are the only one who can carry that message. You can’t do anything for Alchemist Babáckt Yaga, or for me. But you can safeguard the future of the Followers. Only you can save the others. So you have to go. Those are your orders.”

Danka hesitated. Ermin raised his hand in the Followers’ benediction salute. “In the name of the Ancients, I am ordering you to go to Alchemist Fítoreckt. You are sworn to obey. Now go!”

Danka took a deep breath and reluctantly returned his salute. Ermin had given her the strongest and most direct order an Elder could give to a Follower. She had taken the oath, so she had to ignore her desire to stay with Ermin and die by his side. Already he had turned away from her and had broken into a hollowed-out a section of the kitchen’s wall. He was connecting some pieces of stiff string that had been soaked in a special flammable wax. He ran outside to the alchemist’s study, opened a hollowed out section of a supporting tree trunk, and fiddled with more pieces of string. Danka took a final look at Babáckt Yaga’s agonized face and contorted body. She grabbed her bucket and ran out of the settlement.

She ran through the woods with new resolve. She had to avenge her companions, but to avenge them she had to survive long enough to complete the journey to Sebérnekt Ris. She owed it to the others to live, because sacrificing her life would accomplish nothing. She understood that Ermin did want to save her, but he was much more interested in making sure the surviving Cult members knew what had happened to Babáckt Yaga’s settlement so they could protect themselves and avenge their dead.

Danka jumped along the stones and ducked under logs as she made her way back towards the mules. She knew the area extremely well and was experienced at moving quickly through the forest. When she got to the animals, she needed to make a decision. She had to continue moving as fast as possible, but realized she couldn’t if she was riding one mule and trying to lead the other. She pulled Ermin’s belongings off his animal. She discarded his saddle but kept the saddlebag. She untied the spare mule and tossed aside the bridle and reins. She could only hope the animal would wander off and perhaps serve as a distraction.

She remembered Ermin’s order about the collar. She also remembered that her clothing was covered in blood and her trousers were soaked with urine. It would never do to have anyone see her in an outfit splattered by blood and reeking of piss. She pulled off her soiled clothes and threw them next to the abandoned saddle. For the first time in more than a year she put on her Church collar and assumed the disguise of a naked penitent.

She covered her bucket, tied it to her saddle, and led the remaining mule down the hill. The Ancients blessed her by making the animal cooperative. Danka had been moving downhill for a half an hour when she heard a series of explosions coming from the direction of Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. The mule was unnerved by the noise, but fortunately did not panic or buck. Danka suddenly felt very sick. It was obvious that Ermin’s Path in Life had just ended and the settlement, which had been the center of her world for the past 15 months, had become nothing more than piles of burnt wreckage.

She calmed the mule and kept going. She needed to continue moving through the rugged terrain as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. She was frustrated by having to lead an animal that was slowing her down, but she knew the mule was necessary to transport her items and would greatly assist her as soon as she got to a decent road.

Danka only stopped when it became too dark to continue. She knew better than to start a campfire; she still was too close to the Follower’s settlement and anyone who might have survived Ermin’s explosions. Instead, she lit an oil lamp to have just enough light to reorganize the saddlebags. She disassembled the skull staffs and secured the skulls inside her luggage. She also had to hide her Follower’s dress and Ermin’s robe. She knew it would be better to discard Ermin’s items altogether, but was not sure whether such a precaution was allowed.

She spent as much time as possible on her packing, because she knew that as soon as she closed her eyes, the Destroyer would be paying her a visit with the usual visions and taunting. The memories of that horrid day would torment her dreams for years. She would remember the suspended corpses of people who had educated her and with whom she had lived. There were the memories of Babáckt Yaga hanging on the cross and her deformed body when she was taken down. There were the faces and gaping wounds of the men she had killed. Yes, that was another detail to torment Danka’s soul: she had killed or participated in the killing of a dozen men. Not only had she seen death; she had inflicted it. She hadn’t much time to think about killing while it was going on: she was too scared and the situation was too chaotic for her to have any moral reservations about swinging her sword. Well, now she did have time to think about it.

“I’m alone,” Danka muttered to herself: “Alone with myself. I hate being alone.”


Danka looked up. An owl, that owl, had settled onto a branch overlooking the clearing. She stood up.


The ground grabbed Danka’s feet and the large yellow eyes emerged from the sitting owl, filling her vision and blocking out everything else.

“Why? Why, Danka Síluckt? Why are you such a hypocrite and a liar?”

“I don’t understand. Thanks to you, I’m now a murderer, but why are you calling me a hypocrite and a liar?”

“Stop pretending you don’t understand. First you tell me to be gone, that you want to be left alone. Then… sitting by yourself with your little oil lamp, you tell the world that you hate being alone. So, which is it? Do you want companionship, or do you not want companionship?”

“I… I do, but from the Realm of the Living.”

“Oh really? From the Realm of the Living? I can send you companions from the Realm of the Living, if you so desire.”

“No. I don’t want anything from you.”

“So what I say about you is true, isn’t it? You are a liar and a hypocrite. You cry about being alone… but then you reject companionship.”

“Why would I want anything from you? What kind of companions would you send? The ones who killed my Mistress? Why would I want that? Why? Why? Why?” Danka had become angry from the taunting. “Why don’t you just end my Path in Life, if that’s what you’re planning to do? Why wait? Why? Why? Why?”

Danka realized she was shouting into the dark. The owl had vanished and the ground had released her feet. She was exhausted and actually managed to sleep for a couple of hours before daylight returned and she was able to continue her journey.

* * *

She descended along the same path that she had followed with Ervin just a couple of days before. She even passed the birch grove where he had switched her. It was strange to think the scandal on their minds at that moment was totally irrelevant now. However, seeing the birch grove was a relief, because it meant that she only had an hour of traveling ahead of her before she emerged onto an open farm road and could mount her mule.

The pace of her trip picked up as soon as she emerged into the cleared area of the western valley. She avoided Nagorónkti-Serífkti, not wanting anyone to know what had happened to Babáckt Yaga before she had the chance to deliver the news to Fítoreckt. She received numerous curious stares, because a person performing Public Penance normally did not ride animals. Several people even asked her what she was doing. She responded that she had been tasked with delivering the mule to its owner in Sebérnekt Ris and was riding the animal to hasten her journey. Whenever she passed a member of the Danubian Clergy she had to dismount and kneel, something she had to force herself to remember to do, given that the Danubian Church had not had any claim of authority over her for the past 15 months.

Danka rode the entire day and only stopped after dark. She stayed at a village church, where she rested and stabled her mule. The animal needed a break and a decent meal of hay. Danka slept in a room with a couple of other penitents. She spent the next day traveling non-stop and, for the sake of the mule, had to spend the night at another church. She hated having to disguise herself: she would have preferred traveling openly as a Follower. However, pretending to be a Church penitent had its advantages. She had free food and lodging along with the protection granted by her collar. Also, she enjoyed journeying openly in the nude, with the warm late summer sun shining on her body and the breezes caressing her bare skin.

She arrived at her destination in Sebérnekt Ris mid-afternoon, after three days of traveling. Just outside the town she remembered to duck behind a barn, take off the penance collar, and put on her Follower’s dress. She re-assembled her skull staff and led her mule through the city gate and into the university compound.

When she found Alchemist Fítoreckt, he was clearly distressed, but did not seem surprised by the news.

“So… this is it. This is the year the Old World vanishes. Your Mistress was correct about that.”

“Alchemist? She was correct about what?”

“I’ll explain later. Go to the head seamstress, turn in your Follower’s gown and tell her to give you a normal dress. You will hand over your staff and Ermin’s items as well. Get cleaned up and find yourself a bed-chamber in the student dormitory. After you’ve done all that, report to the library and speak with the senior transcriber. I want you to describe, in as much detail as you can remember, exactly what happened at Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. I need description: who you saw, where the bodies were positioned, the outfits of your assailants, what everyone looked like, and what happened moment by moment from the time you entered until the time you left. He’s trained to extract memories and details, so he’ll be asking you questions.”

While Danka was getting cleaned up, Fítoreckt called his messengers. They were to travel to all of the sites where Followers were working to warn them to avoid going in the direction of the forest settlement. Instead, as soon as they could tactfully break away from their assignments, they were to disguise themselves and travel to Sebérnekt Ris.

Danka spent the late afternoon reliving those awful minutes in the settlement as she described in minute detail everything she had witnessed, done, or experienced. When the transcriber was satisfied there was nothing more he could extract from her disjointed memories, he dismissed her and told her to return to Fítoreckt’s study. She was surprised to see him dressed in a civilian’s tunic. He told her to close the door and to take a seat. Instead of asking her how she was doing or trying to exchange any pleasantries, he got to the point.

“You remember the details of our conversation in the spring, correct?”

“Yes, Alchemist.”

“I wanted to make sure you understood the reality the Followers were facing and the impending demise of the remnants of the Old World. I told you what I believed you needed to know at the time, but there is an important detail I chose not to share with you. I felt it would have done you no good to burden you with that knowledge, even though it was knowledge concerning your Path in Life.”

Danka wasn’t sure how to respond, so she waited for Fítoreckt to continue.

“During my time in the Realm of the Living, I have known a single person who was able to predict the future. Knowing the future is a curse I would not wish on any soul, that I can assure you. Your Mistress was the one cursed that ability. When she made a prediction, she never made a mistake. Of course, she was sparing with what she shared, even with me. She understood that knowing the future is something not to be desired by anyone. Anyhow, she told me some things about you; predictions that turned out to be completely accurate.”

“…of things that have already happened, Alchemist?”

“Yes. For many years she had suspected that she was the final guardian of the remnants of the Old World. She also knew that a single person would bear witness to both her death and the destruction of the realm she represented. From the moment she first saw you, she knew the Ancients had designated you to be that person. In your face she saw her own death. So, over the past year, she and I have been preparing for the end. What happened in your Mistress’s settlement came as no surprise to me at all.”

“But… the men… who were they?”

“Mercenaries… hired by the Priest of Nagorónkti-Serífkti. He’s a True Believer, you know…”

“…but I thought he always treated us well.”

“Yes he did. A perfect ruse, wasn’t it? He found out everything he needed to know about us and our habits and, when the moment came, he sent his people to destroy the settlement.”

“But… why?”

“Hubris. He wants to become the Archbishop of the True Believers. If he can extend his control into the forest and seize control of our holy sites and destroy them, think of what that would do for his reputation, not just among the True Believers, but for the Roman Church. I understand he’s been in contact with them. He fancies himself as the Christian leader of the entire Duchy, and as such, feels that it is his Path in Life to annihilate the Cult of the Ancients. He plotted this for many years.”

“So what do we do?”

“First, we safeguard our people. The True Believers are planning to move against any Follower they can lay their hands on, but we are popular in most places and they’d have to capture or kill us in secret. That gives us a few days. Also, Ermin (and you) complicated their plans by killing so many of their mercenaries. Those men will take a few weeks to replace. Meanwhile, we send out our messengers, disguise our members, and bring them to Sebérnekt Ris. We will assume new identities and go back out, but not as Followers. So, the Cult of the Ancients won’t survive, but its people will.”

“After 5000 years? You’re giving up after 5000 years?”

“It is our Path in Life. It’s what the Ancients desire. The Old World is no more: it died with Babáckt Yaga, its final guardian. But no, we are not giving up. We will exact revenge on our worldly opponents and we will safeguard the Duchy’s future. We can only accomplish that by first safeguarding ourselves, starting with you.”

Fítoreckt handed Danka several documents. One was a forged identity certificate from the Senior Priest in Starívktaki Móskt confirming that she had braided her hair with the blessing of the Danubian Church under the name Jadránka. Another paper, which she’d have to take to the local cathedral for a signature and a stamp, would confirm her enrollment in the local university under that name.

“I am very pleased to have you with us, Student Jadránka. Go ask the Priest for his blessing, then report to the professors to receive your class assignments.”

Danka dumbly looked at the papers, then at Fítoreckt.

“Do you have a question, Student Jadránka?”

“I… I guess not, Director Fítoreckt.”

“Then run along and finish your registration. You’ve already missed a week of classes and you have some catching up to do. I always thought the people of Starívktaki Móskt had a reputation for punctuality. You’re setting a poor example for your city by showing up a week late. Under normal circumstances I’d not let you finish enrolling, but I understand you encountered problems during your journey here, so I will make an exception for you.”

“I… thank you, Director Fítoreckt.”

“Now, run along. Obtain the signature and report to your professors. I don’t have the patience of Job.”

Danka reluctantly left her dean’s study and made her way to the cathedral. She no longer was Danka the Follower of the Ancients. In an instant she had become a totally new person, Jadránka the university student from Starívktaki Móskt.

* * *

The Cult of the Ancients mysteriously vanished from the Realm of the Living during the first week of September, 1752. Throughout the Duchy, Followers quietly left their assignments and were never heard from again. By the middle of the month, the familiar black uniforms and skull staffs that identified the Duchy’s leading medical practitioners had completely vanished. In most places where they had worked the Followers left very little evidence they ever existed at all.

The fate of the Cult of the Ancients became a favorite enigma of Danubian society and lore. The Followers always lived in mystery and, after 5000 years, they vanished in mystery.

“So… what happened to the Followers of the Ancients?”

“Well, what happens to a breath of air, after the words which it carried have been spoken?”

End of part 3

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