The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 5

Chapter Fifteen – The Grand Duke's Favorite

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

By the end of 1753, The Grand Duke was becoming increasingly concerned about the disappearance of the Cult of the Ancients. Their absence meant an end to the vaccination campaigns against smallpox and other illnesses. The mortality rate among the villages due to lack of medical services already was worsening, according to reports he was receiving. Contemporary European medical practices that had been discredited in the Duchy, such as bleeding, were making a comeback in some areas of the country. Meanwhile, the True Believers were encouraging their adherents to accept sickness as punishment from God and turn away from medical treatment altogether. The True Believer priests gleefully filled the void of medical services with the idea that physical suffering was the result of Divine Judgment for sin and idolatry, and for the Duchy’s refusal to submit to the Roman Church.

The Grand Duke pondered how to confront the deteriorating situation of public health in the Duchy and counteract the ignorance being spewed by the True Believers. He had seen the horrid conditions in neighboring countries and did not want his realm to resemble the rest of Europe. The Cult of the Ancients had been the main reason the Duchy’s people were relatively healthy. Well, the Cult was now gone, so their services would have to be replaced. But replaced by whom?

The ruler first considered trying to convince the Prophets of the Old Believers to fill the void left by the Followers of the Ancients. Their attitude towards the cosmos and to role of science certainly was better than that of the True Believers. However, relying on the Old Believers to expand their activities into medicine would increase their control of the Duchy’s society at the expense of the Royal Family. The Old Believers were strong enough as it was …the Grand Duke had no desire to see them become even stronger. The only other Danubian entity organized enough to provide health services was the Crown itself.

Over time the Grand Duke would come up with a solution that would seem perfectly logical in the 20th Century, but in the middle of the 18th Century was a radical idea. Why not have the Crown control the nation’s health services? If the nation’s best medical staff were working under the direction of the Grand Duke, the True Believers would not be in a position to oppose modern medicine, because to do so would entail rebelling against the government itself. Choosing which cities would receive medical services would allow the Grand Duke to leverage support from the town councils: if a town council did not support him, he simply wouldn’t send any medical staff.

The Grand Duke faced a dilemma with his idea: he did not have any precedent to provide guidance concerning how he could organize the Duchy’s doctors and bring medicinal services under his control. He understood that he needed to hire a large number of doctors as government employees, which would involve creating an organization to control their services and travels, pay them, provide supplies, compile records, and conduct medical research. The ruler would need to create a Ministry of Heath, but he did not yet understand the concept in those terms, since such a project had never been attempted by any other ruler in that part of Europe.

The Grand Duke spent restless nights thinking about the Duchy’s medical dilemma. The problem was simple: the Cult of the Ancients was gone, the medical services they provided needed to be replaced, and it was up to the Crown to figure out how to replace those services. But …how? The sovereign desperately cast about for ideas; talking to his advisors and sending letters to his ambassadors asking how medical services were provided in the countries where they were stationed.

At the same time he was seeking ideas from foreign capitals, he thought about the most unusual member of his concubine group, the educated peasant girl. He continued probing her knowledge of medicine and alchemy throughout November. He ordered her to assist with the delivery of some babies, including the children of several ex-concubines who had moved to the maternity area before Silvítya was brought to the castle. He was impressed with her skills and knowledge. When workers were injured from falls or soldiers were injured during combat practice, he ordered her to tie her hair and cover it with a scarf and assist with surgeries and setting broken bones. He observed her as she performed her duties with confidence. There was no doubt about it: Silvítya had received training to be a doctor from the Cult of the Ancients.

At the end of November, the Grand Duke ordered Silvítya to kneel in front of him in the throne room and talk in detail about the university in Sebérnekt Ris. Then he stunned her by commenting, “I find it very interesting that you did not start your medical studies in the university. You were an advanced student, which means you were already trained by the Followers of the Ancients. I understand that you traveled with the Cult as a doctor before you ever set foot in Sebérnekt Ris. I presume you must have spent the summer of last year in Nagorónkti-Serífkti and Dagurúckt-Tók, marking the people against the pox. Before that, you spent the previous winter in the forest, receiving training and practicing your skills. Is that not so?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl was there, marking the people against the pox.”

“…and I am correct about your winter in the forest?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl received medical training in the forest.”

“…and when you were in the towns, you showed yourself to the public and performed your duties wearing a Follower’s dress?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, your humble serving girl was wearing a Follower’s dress.”

“…and you carried a skull staff. The Followers did not let members practice medicine if they were uninitiated and had not received their staffs. Is that not so?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl carried a staff.”

The Grand Duke switched to archaic Danubian. He didn’t speak it fluently, but did speak well enough make himself understood:

“Excellent. So…I have, in my castle and under my command, a Follower of the Cult of the Ancients. A witness to the Old World. A woman with knowledge of the Old Ways. And…most importantly …a woman who can train my staff and teach me the secrets of the Cult’s alchemy.”

Silvítya went white and tried to catch her breath. There was no point in trying to deny anything. As much as she hated the Grand Duke, she had to admire his perception, his patience, and his talent for uncovering people’s secrets. Silvítya had taken oaths not to disclose anything about her activities as a Follower. The ruler was well-aware of her oaths, so he gathered information and clues through casual comments and waited until he needed to do nothing more than force her to confirm what he already knew.

The Grand Duke continued, still struggling to express himself in archaic Danubian, “I know your secrets, but not because you betrayed your oath. You remained loyal to your beliefs and your fellow Cultists. I simply outsmarted you. There are other details about your life that I know, which I will reveal to you when the moment suits me. Do you understand me, Follower Danka?”

“Y… yes Your Majesty …your humble serving girl understands.”

The Grand Duke switched back to speaking modern Danubian. “Excellent. I am sworn to serve the needs of the people of the Duchy and, as my humble serving girl, you will assist me. We will begin by having you tell me about the pox mark. I want to know how the scarring works. I understand there is a paste that you put on the knife before you cut a patient. So, I need to know how you create the paste, what ingredients go into it, and how you prepare the knife and the paste for making the mark. You will first tell me; then you will write the instructions on a sheet of parchment.”

In a trembling voice, Silvítya obeyed, explaining how the vaccine was created, using pox from sick cows. The Grand Duke was delighted.

“So …that’s the secret. Cows. Who would have thought …cows? No wonder no one else could figure it out. Now, Follower Danka, you will sit at my desk and write your formula and instructions in detail. I will re-create the pox remedy, so if you need to add any research or outside sources, you’d best include them in your report.”

The Grand Duke spoke with an implied threat in his tone of voice. Silvítya suspected he knew about her relationship with Antonia and was perfectly willing to use that vulnerability against her. It would be best to avoid risking any mention of Antonia, so Silvítya humbly responded: “To hear is to obey, Your Majesty.”

For several weeks the Grand Duke continued questioning Silvítya, as she knelt on hard stone floors in the cold throne room, with a shivering body and aching knees. He forced her to give up everything she knew about the Followers’ medical knowledge and Babáckt Yaga’s research. Finally he sent her into his study to write about the information she had given him. She knew that she needed to provide him with reports that were completely accurate, so she included references to Babáckt Yaga’s studies and research, which were locked in the dean’s office at the university in Sebérnekt Ris. The Grand Duke ordered soldiers to go to the university and demand the current dean surrender the Followers’ writings. When the shipment of secret documents arrived, the Grand Duke built a hidden annex to the Royal library in which to store them. He kept the only key to the room with him at all times.

For months Silvítya wrote her reports, wondering what the Grand Duke planned to do with them. She answered his questions, only to be rewarded with yet more questions or a writing assignment. She dreaded the thought of the ruler asking her about Antonia, but fortunately she kept him pleased enough that he never felt a need to use that weakness against her. She also wondered if anyone from the Cult of the Ancients would attempt to retaliate for the information she was giving up. It seemed unlikely, with Fítoreckt dead and no successor taking his place, but really she had no way of knowing what was going on in Sebérnekt Ris. All she could hope was that she would be forgotten and that the Cult of the Ancients truly was defunct.

* * *

Although he knew part of her real name, the ruler continued calling his concubine Servant Silvítya. It turned out he wanted her to conceal her identity from outsiders as much as she did, and had no interest in letting anyone else in the castle know that her real name was Danka or that she had been a Follower. He was not interested in protecting her, but instead protecting his own reputation and plans.

Years later Silvítya would discover the sovereign copied her reports into his own handwriting so he could present them to the public and claim credit for the Followers’ discoveries. The Grand Duke impressed his ministers and foreign ambassadors with his “research”, his amazing intellect, and his understanding of science. Throughout the winter of 1753-1754, it seemed that every week he emerged from his study with a new discovery to benefit the Duchy’s people. One of his most impressive works was an account of the rat-plague that struck down the citizens of Rika Héckt-nemát, in which he speculated that it was not rats, but instead fleas, that were the culprits transmitting blood poison from person to person, which would explain why people not in direct contact with rats were still getting sick. He concluded by noting that sanitation and measures to control rats (and their fleas) would prevent a similar tragedy from happening to another city.

Drawing upon his tireless hours with medical journals, dedicated research, and amazing discoveries; the Grand Duke set up field hospitals and alchemy labs on the outskirts of the capital to produce medicine and potions. As the Royal Ministry of Health and Alchemy began to take shape, the Crown hired medical students to resume the Followers’ abandoned vaccination campaign. The Grand Duke’s employees fearlessly entered towns and villages still under the control of the True Believers. Unlike the Followers, they did not have to appease town councilmen or negotiate with clergy members. They simply entered where they were ordered to go, conducted their vaccinations, and moved on. Any clergyman who objected quickly received five arrows to the chest. The townsfolk were impressed with the medical care provided by their ruler, which gained their loyalty and made them more willing to pay taxes and provide soldiers for upcoming military campaigns.

The former Followers of the Ancients were not in a position to object to the Danubian ruler’s actions, claims, and plagiarisms. They were scattered, not in frequent contact with each other, and would have had to emerge from hiding to say anything. The Grand Duke’s claims that the research was his thus went uncontested. As the years passed and the Crown’s efforts to address the Duchy’s public health concerns improved, ordinary Danubians gave praise to the Creator for having granted them such a wise ruler who had taken so much trouble to become an expert in medical research. He became known as the “Great Visionary”, an unofficial title he would keep throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The Grand Duke’s priority was securing the Cult of the Ancients’ medical studies, but he was aware the Followers had some other interesting achievements that could benefit both the Royal Household and the people of the Duchy. Over the ensuing decade the “Great Visionary” would claim responsibility for inventing some soil management and water conservation practices, a cast-iron stove, removable wooden panels for utility buildings, and the introduction of cave-charcoal as a source of heating.

The cave-charcoal was the most significant innovation introduced by the “Great Visionary”, one that would greatly reduce the unnecessary destruction of trees. As a child he had heard stories about the Followers burning magical black rocks instead of firewood. He questioned his concubine about the rocks and found out that, sure enough, the rocks really existed and there were several places in the mountains where they could be dug out. During the summer of 1754, a Royal expedition would locate the Followers’ abandoned mines and bring back the first samples of cave-charcoal to Danúbikt Móskt, allowing the Grand Duke to claim credit for introducing the Duchy to coal.

* * *

During her internment in the Royal Residence, Silvítya didn’t have much news from the outside world, apart from what little the ruler chose to tell her. Every day she saw dozens, or even hundreds of castle servants, Royal Guards, ministers, scribes, soldiers, and ordinary workers, but she felt unable to talk to them about anything going on outside the fortress walls. The only source of news from the outside came whenever a new concubine was brought in to replace one who had become pregnant. The new girls rarely had anything to say that was of interest to Silvítya, since for the most part they only knew about their respective towns and families.

Magdala continued leading the group and introducing newcomers to the lifestyle and shared community of the concubines. However, her stomach continued to grow, a constant reminder of her pending departure from the group and her replacement with another spokeswoman. The women were not looking forward to her exit, because she had been an excellent leader that kept problems and disputes to a minimum. It seemed that even the Grand Duke was reluctant to pull her from the concubine group and assign her to the maternity ward. She was obviously pregnant and the ruler had long since stopped having sex with her, but he left her in her position until her pregnancy had completed five months.

Meanwhile, Silvítya spent endless hours with the sovereign, bathing him, massaging him, allowing him to run his hands over her body and through her hair, and submitting to his sexual desires. He enjoyed teasing her. He knew that she did not like being sodomized, so he made her bend over and traced his fingertip around her sphincter. And yet, as much as he teased her and silently threatened her, he did not actually enter her bottom. Even when having normal sex with her, he treated her decently. He did not make her participate in group sex sessions with other concubines or overtly humiliate her. He shared his supply of imported treats such as Turkish delight, flavored honey, and dried fruit. He talked to her in a perfectly normal manner, although Silvítya continued to refer to herself as “your humble serving girl”.

It was obvious, to both Silvítya and the other concubines, that she had become the Grand Duke’s favorite. She suspected she would become the group’s next spokeswoman. Assuming the role of leader was not something she anticipated with happiness. She would have to deal with nine other personalities, young women whose backgrounds were totally different from hers, and keep them out of trouble in an environment that was very stressful and very artificial. Her only recourse was to talk to Magdala about leading the concubines and speaking on their behalf.

Magdala appreciated that her likely successor was seeking her insight instead of trying to do everything according to her own wishes. “The most important rule is to remember that you are responsible for everything that goes on in the group. Never try to shift blame for a problem away from yourself, even if you feel another sister is at fault or has acted foolishly. Be prepared to face the switch for someone else’s mistake. Make everyone feel included, but at the same time, make sure everyone conforms to the practices of the group. Don’t be afraid to discipline a sister for errant behavior or to correct ignorance. Do you remember how I handled you, when you dishonored yourself at the dinner table?”

“Yes, Sister Magdala.”

“I didn’t strike you or humiliate you or raise my voice at you, but I spoke to you in a firm manner, telling you that you needed to correct your eating habits. You will remember that I told you how to correct them, to go into the kitchen and request instruction. You always need to do that when a sister shows ignorance. Point out the problem, tell her how to correct it, and make her understand that she is responsible for doing what is needed to conform. Remember that our Paths in Life are, in some ways, very difficult, and that we must do what is needed to conform and get along with each other.”

Magdala shifted uncomfortably, trying to adjust her growing stomach. She continued, “With every decision you make, every single thought that passes through your head, ask yourself: ‘how will what I’m doing benefit my fellow sisters? How will my actions and words make their Paths in Life easier?’”

Silvítya interjected: “I had an idea…not to make the sisters’ lives easier, but to make our lives more useful. When you leave, there is something different that I’m planning to do …a change from the way you do things …and I want to hear your opinion. If His Majesty does indeed place me in charge of the others, I think everyone should read more and be able to discuss what they’ve read. Also, I’d like to provide some medical training.”

“Medical training? You know medicine?”

“Yes. And I want to teach the others.”

“Where did you learn medicine, Sister Silvítya?”

“Well, I didn’t tell you this earlier, but His Majesty has figured out my previous Path in Life, so I see no harm in sharing it with you. I remember you telling me that when you were in your grandfather’s house, you wanted to meet a young female Follower who was working in Dagurúckt-Tók. You’ve met her.”

“You, Sister? You were a Follower?”

“Yes, I was a Follower.”

Silvítya could see from Magdala’s expression that a hoard of questions had crowded into her brain. It was too much to explain…to painful to have to re-tell. She didn’t want to go into detail about her time as a Follower: she had just wanted Magdala to know she was a competent field doctor. She forestalled the pending barrage of questions by giving up another piece of information.

“I have a question for you, Sister Magdala. When the Followers marked you with the pox scar; who did it? Was it a young nobleman, or an older man?”

“The older man.”

“The older man gave up his life, a few weeks after he marked you. I was close to him when it happened. And when he died, a lot of me died with him. My Path in Life never recovered.” Silvítya paused, fighting off a sudden surge of emotion. “…and now I’m here. I’m just…here…”

* * *

Magdala left the concubine group the very next day. The hairdresser braided her hair, handed her a maternity dress, and the young woman departed to lead a more normal existence in the maternity wing of the castle. Her Path in Life would return her to Dagurúckt-Tók, where she would have her own house and live on the Grand Duke’s coin as compensation for raising his child. Silvítya could tell that she was happy to be leaving behind her life as a concubine. For a moment she was envious.

The Grand Duke called the nine remaining concubines into the throne room. Their naked bodies trembled in the cold, drafty chamber. Ignoring their discomfort, he ordered them to kneel in the traditional submissive posture, with the exception of Silvítya, who had to stand at attention in front of the others.

“Servant Silvítya, you are now the spokeswoman for your companions. You are responsible for ensuring compliance with my wishes. You will speak on behalf of the others. You will receive and relay my orders. Do you understand?”

“To hear is to obey, Your Majesty.”

“Everyone else! I have made my decision concerning who speaks for you! Understood?”

“To hear is to obey, Your Majesty.”

* * *

Silvítya knew that she needed to start out leading the group in the same way Magdala had lead. Conformity with etiquette and protocol was important, disputes between the women needed to be avoided or settled as harmoniously as possible, and every member of the group had to look upon herself as a guardian of the well-being of the others. Silvítya did not care for the “sisters” title, but she decided to leave it in place out of deference to her predecessor.

Magdala never spoke badly of another concubine, nor did she tolerate criticism of any “sister” by any other “sister”. For that reason, it was not until she left that Silvítya found out why the Grand Duke took away the position of favored concubine from Desislava. Through some comments from the other “sisters”, Silvítya found out that Desislava had not been able to keep conflict within the group under control. One personality conflict became so bad that a girl who felt wronged actually went to a matron with a complaint. The older women quickly took advantage of the situation and used the disputes as justification to whip three concubines. The Grand Duke regretted his decision of appointing Desislava to lead the group and decided to remove her. Desislava continued to be his favorite woman in bed, but she was not suited to be a leader. So, he handed to position to Magdala, a girl who he liked considerably less than Desislava, but one who was smarter and better at handling others. He replaced Magdala with Silvítya as his favorite because of her intellect, but was not sure if she would be as good a leader.

Silvítya had no illusions that she could turn her companions into intellectuals and field doctors overnight. She suspected that the concubines were so set in their ways that encouraging them to alter their daily routine in any way would have to be handled with extreme tact. So, she would start out with having her companions read novels. The Royal library included a collection of light reading, which was mostly used by the matrons and some of the guards’ wives. It had never occurred to anyone to make that reading available to the concubines.

She wanted to make sure the Grand Duke did not have any objections, so she openly asked if the library could provide the “sisters” with some novels and poetry. The sovereign responded that Silvítya, because she already had access, could sign-out novels just as easily as she could sign out the works she used to write her reports.

She figured that she’d start by making reading voluntary, then eventually apply group pressure to force any holdouts to start reading. Her plan was to have the concubines discuss and critique novels before eventually moving on to topics such as history and religion, and finally, to medicine.

* * *

Two concubines, including a girl who had been in the group before Magdala arrived, became pregnant at the beginning of 1754. That brought the number of women down to seven, the lowest number of concubines in years. The ruler continued to moderate his sexual demands with his current favorite, which meant that only six women were available to satisfy his sexual cravings. The morale of the concubine group deteriorated due to not being able to take turns resting from his rough treatment and constant demands for sex.

The ruler’s guards looked around the Duchy for possible candidates to resupply the concubine pool. They found four new girls: an indebted guildsman’s daughter, a peasant girl who was spotted taking a pair of sheep to market, the illegitimate daughter of a True Believer priest, and a girl seen traveling with her family among a group of refugees. The Grand Duke’s men paid silver for the guildsman’s daughter and the peasant girl. The True Believer Priest simply handed over his daughter as a way to prevent a scandal within his church. The guards took the refugee girl in exchange allowing her family and their companions to stay in the squalid camp outside the capitol.

The matrons processed the four new concubines during the last week of January. They were delighted to have the opportunity to bully and humiliate the young women, especially the peasant girl. Silvítya and Antonia stood shivering on the balcony that overlooked the castle courtyard, watching the matrons yell at and switch the newcomers. Silvítya noted the older women seemed to have become rougher and crueler in their treatment of the new recruits.

Silvítya took advantage of the Grand Duke’s absence and the arrival of four new women to implement changes in the concubine group. She realized that having four new girls entering the same week gave her the opportunity to change the dynamics of the “sisters” and the small world in which they lived. She decided to keep Magdala’s “sister” for addressing the others, even though she found it annoying. However, the idle afternoons sitting in the bath and playing chess were about to end. The spokeswoman was determined that her companions could talk about outside topics, partly because she was hideously bored with the daily routine. The concubines’ Path in Life was to sit around and wait to become pregnant, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t use their time trying to improve their minds. Three of the new girls were literate, so their spokeswoman showed them a stack of novels, told them to select one, and to be ready to discuss it with the group within two weeks. A couple of the other concubines already had started reading fiction, so their leader’s plan to start a literature discussion group was about to implemented.

The new peasant girl didn’t know how to read, so it would be up to the other women to correct that deficiency. When the others argued they didn’t have any experience teaching, Silvítya handed them some children’s literacy manuals borrowed from the Grand Duke’s library. She tasked Antonia with teaching the peasant girl how to eat with proper etiquette.

The guildsman’s daughter was the most “typical” newcomer to the concubine group, so she fit in with no problem. She was from Starívktaki Móskt, so Silvítya was able to receive an update on the news from that city. The Senior Priest had become too sick to work and the Temple had to replace him. The scandal over what happened to his son Bagatúrckt had not died down at all. The entire province had immortalized the saga of the sophisticated but flawed young man, a man who had fallen in love with a beautiful temptress and was handed over to the Destroyer. The tragic tale and outlandish descriptions of the beauty of the seductress had become a popular topic of tavern songs and campfire poems.

Silvítya thought to herself: 'well, I guess I won’t be returning to Starívktaki Móskt anytime soon…'

The priest’s daughter brought news from Sevérckt nad Gorádki. The True Believers in that city were in crisis. A group of elite families, lead by a young nobleman called Káloyankt, had publicly re-affirmed allegiance to the Grand Duke. They took their oath from a Priest and Priestess from the Great Temple in Danúbikt Móskt, which meant they had officially declared themselves Old Believers. It turned out the True Believers faction of the Danubian Church was about to lose its influence in the entire western half of the Duchy. They had been chased out of Nagorónkti-Serífkti, several leading citizens of Sevérckt nad Gorádki had defected, and no one had any news from the True Believers’ other stronghold, Rika Héckt-nemát.

Silvítya sat quietly in the bath, staring at the water and lost in thought. Antonia was occupied trying to teach the peasant girl proper table manners, and thus not with her. She was glad to be alone and have the opportunity to reflect on her memories of the Cult of the Ancients and her lovers Káloyankt and Ermin. They had been so different from each other, and her relationship with each was so different. She loved them both…in different ways and for different reasons. She missed them. Ermin was dead, and as far as she was concerned, Káloyankt also was dead. The Káloyankt she had known and shared a winter with no longer existed. He was gone, nothing more than a memory.

Silvítya thought about her former lover and pondered how he must have changed over the past 18 months. From the way the priest’s daughter had described him, it seemed he had become a leading voice among the town’s aristocracy. So…he had indeed found his Path in Life. She tried to imagine Káloyankt, standing in his best clothing, speaking with confidence in the city hall or from a platform in the main plaza, discussing the most important issues of the day and persuading others to follow his decisions.

How different he must be from when I knew him. How different. So…Babáckt Yaga was right. It was not my Path in Life to stay with him. I would have prevented him from fulfilling his destiny.

I wonder how often he thinks of me…what he remembers…

I won’t ever see him again. I want Káloyankt to always remember me as I was when I wore my Follower’s dress and carried my staff. I don’t want him to think about me in any other way. I can be grateful…I guess…that he can’t see me now…I certainly wouldn’t want him to see me like this…as a concubine…

* * *

The fourth new concubine’s name was Crysánkta. She was a nervous and jumpy girl, who looked around whenever she heard shouting or loud noises. Crysánkta’s family originally lived in the southernmost province of the Duchy, to the southeast of the regional capitol Hórkustk Ris and very close to the Duchy’s southern border.

Crysánkta brought news from the outside, but it was news of the Duchy’s future, not of Silvítya’s past. From her reading, Silvítya was aware that the southern province of the Duchy was different from the central and eastern regions because it was not inhabited entirely by ethnic Danubians. Hórkustk Ris was a Danubian city, but the villages to the east and south were a mixture of Danubians and people who had entered from the Ottoman Empire and more recently from the Kingdom of the Moon. Danubian writers generally agreed there was likely to be a crisis in the region and that it was possible the Duchy could lose the province if nothing was done to address the rising number of foreigners. However, until late 1753, talk of a crisis was nothing more than speculation.

During the 1740s and 1750s, the Duchy did not share a border with the Ottoman Empire. A Christian rebellion in the northern Ottoman territories of the Balkan Peninsula resulted in the independence of new nation called the Kingdom of the Moon. The Grand Duke’s father had welcomed the new Kingdom and even offered to send some troops to help secure its independence. However, the Kingdom’s current ruler, the Lord of the Red Moon, had not been friendly to the Duchy. When the old Grand Duke died, the neighboring ruler demanded that the new Danubian Grand Duke swear subservience to the Kingdom, pay tribute, and cede some territory. When the Grand Duke refused to cede territory, the Lord of the Red Moon quickly turned hostile. If the Danubians wouldn’t cede the territory he wanted, he’d simply take it.

During late 1753, the Kingdom of the Moon sent troops into Hórkustk Ris province to seize villages and drive out ethnic Danubians. Crysánkta’s village was invaded at the beginning of December and nearly half of the Danubian civilians living in the area were massacred. The survivors fled, first to Hórkustk Ris, but then Crysánkta’s uncle decided to take the surviving members of her family to the capital.

The Grand Duke took an interest in Crysánkta and the information she provided concerning the loss of her village and the deteriorating military situation along the border. He angrily confronted his commanders for not telling him how dire things were the south. Finally, when they failed to convince him things were not as bad as he thought, the ruler decided to see for himself what was going on around Hórkustk Ris. He ordered one of his generals and two Royal Guards to disguise themselves as messengers and accompany him on a scouting trip. The Grand Duke burned with resentment that he had to ride disguised through territory he supposedly controlled. He was gone for a month, which gave the concubines a welcome break from his maniacal sex drive.

* * *

Silvítya decided to take initiative with the concubines’ duty of posing for portraits. She requested an audience with the castle’s two painters to suggest they produce as many pictures as possible while the Grand Duke was absent. She hoped that if the pictures were already painted before the ruler returned, posing for portraits would be one less duty for her and her companions to worry about in the future. Silvítya took it for granted the painters knew the ruler’s preferences for art and would create paintings that pleased him. The artists agreed the idea was a good one and were happy to create works according to their own criteria and without worrying about the Grand Duke impatiently awaiting their completion.

One of the paintings created that month later became the most famous piece from the Grand Duke’s collection. It was a simple image of Silvítya posing with Antonia, in which the artist captured the intimacy between the two women through their expressions. The image remained in the Grand Duke’s private study and out of public view throughout his life. It was made known to the public only after his death. While popular among foreign art fans, the picture’s portrayal of the concubines’ attachment to each other has remained controversial within Danubia.

When they were not posing for portraits, the concubines spent their month-long break locked in their assigned area of the castle. Silvítya took advantage of their boredom and seclusion to implement the changes she wanted for the group. Everyone started reading and discussing novels. It was an activity the women enjoyed, so their spokeswoman decided to make them draft written reports to present to the others. It was a chance for the women to place their thoughts on paper and talk about them to a sympathetic audience. Even Antonia, who by then was sufficiently fluent in Danubian to participate, was able to give presentations to her “sisters”.

Silvítya also began teaching introductory medicine, starting with the basics of childbirth and caring for common illnesses. She was pleasantly surprised when most of her companions displayed interest in what she wanted to teach. She went to the library and brought back the illustrated medical guides that were not locked away with the Followers’ books. As she led and instructed, her confidence in herself returned. She could see herself as more than the Grand Duke’s sex servant; she was actually training and guiding others.

Chapter Sixteen – The Instructor

The Grand Duke returned to the castle in a foul mood. During his trip he had discovered that most of Hórkustk Ris province was not under Danubian control at all. The only enclave remaining was the provincial capital, and the only reason that city was still under the Duchy’s control was that the Kingdom of the Moon had not yet sent an army large enough to conquer it. The city was packed with Danubian refugees who had been denied permission to move north, precisely to prevent the people of the capital from knowing how bad the situation was immediately to the south. There was inadequate food for the crowd and a lot of the people had become sick.

The Grand Duke had discovered the awful news that the entire western half of the Duchy was under threat. Hórkustk Ris was the only major Danubian city to the south of Danúbikt Móskt. After that city was taken, there would be nothing standing between the Army of the Moon and the Duchy’s people.

The Grand Duke rounded up his military advisors and demanded to know why no one had told him about the foreign occupation of Hórkustk Ris province and the plight of tens of thousands of sick refugees. It turned out the advisors had been divided about telling their ruler the truth. Some advisors did want to tell him about Hórkustk Ris as early as the previous summer, but they were overruled by the advisors who were determined to procrastinate. The advisors remained loyal to each other, so the ones who wanted to talk to the Grand Duke about the occupation were stuck in a dilemma. They either had to betray the ruler, or betray their peers. In Danubian culture, betraying one’s companions is considered extremely dishonorable, so the more honest advisors’ actions were restrained by cultural taboos.

The Grand Duke was angry at himself for not realizing his advisors were lying to him. Now that he knew what was going on, he needed to find out why he had been deceived. The ruler summoned the Grand Prophet of the Great Temple to assist his interrogation of his subordinates. With the Prophet present, the advisors would have to lie in front of the leading Clergyman from the Danubian Church if they wanted to continue protecting each other. The presence of the Prophet, coupled with the Grand Duke’s insight and ability to extract information through simple conversation forced the full story out of them. He already understood that it was not simple fear or procrastination that had motivated some of his subordinates to cover up the invasion and force their companions to go along with the deception. It turned out that the traitors had made arrangements with the Lord of the Moon to be spared, along with their families and properties, when the Kingdom invaded the Duchy. All they had to do was facilitate the capture of Hórkustk Ris by withholding intelligence and delaying any response from the Danubian Crown.

The Grand Duke did not want the public to know that he had been deceived by his own advisors. So, there was no public trial of the traitors, no retaliation against their families, no public spectacle at all. He simply grabbed a long bow and ordered Royal Guards to take the traitors to the execution post. He ordered them tied to the post one-by-one and shocked his spectators by conducting the executions himself. The castle staff, the Royal Guards, and the matrons watched with dumbfounded expressions as their ruler fired five arrows into a traitor, checked to make sure he was dead, ordered the body taken away, and then proceeded with the next execution.

Before ordering the bodies taken out of the castle and returned to their relatives, the ruler wrote the following for each household of the executed men:

If you value your lives and the safety of your children, you will not ask why this happened. I assure you my action was justified. Bury your relative, say nothing, and your Path in Life will continue in peace. Disobey my command, and the Destroyer will visit you. The choice is yours.

The Grand Duke of the Duchy of Upper Danubia

* * *

From their balcony the concubines watched their master killing his subordinates. They were terrified, because they did not yet know what was going on and assumed the sovereign had gone mad. His behavior over the next several days did not reassure them. He vented his anger and fear through sex and copulated with the eleven women as though he were possessed. He did not spare the group’s spokeswoman: she had to join her companions in the Royal bed-chamber and endure his rough treatment.

After spending a week calming his nerves with his women, the ruler re-emerged, determined to meet the impending threat coming from the south. He had several months to prepare for the upcoming military campaign, because during the 18th Century it was very difficult for any country to invade any other country during the winter. Large-scale military operations usually took place in the summer, when it was possible for invading armies to live off the land.

The Grand Duke replaced his executed advisors with field commanders from the Royal Army. He ordered the commanders to familiarize themselves with standard military strategies and drills commonly used in Europe at the time. He did not plan to emulate those strategies, but needed to know how to counter them. The Danubian Royal Army, especially the cavalry, would have to adapt to fighting on open ground and abandon the traditional strategy of using forested areas for concealment and protection.

The most significant decision facing the Grand Duke was his country’s reliance on crossbows. The crossbow had served the Duchy admirably over the past several centuries, but it was an archaic weapon suited for guerrilla skirmishes and silent raids. It was not a weapon suited for confronting a large modern enemy army on open ground. Like it or not, the Grand Duke’s army, or at least many of its troops, would have to switch over to using muskets. The Danubian ruler wrote to a Vienna arms dealer to speed up the purchase of modern muskets. He cringed at the cost of the cumbersome weapons and their ammunition, but he had no choice.

Most rulers would have despaired knowing what the Grand Duke and his Army was up against, but the Danubian ruler’s personality was not prone to despair. He knew that, no matter how bad the situation facing him might be, he still had some decisions to make and options available. None of the choices were very good ones, but they were choices nonetheless. Besides, not all of the news coming from the south was bad. The Kingdom of the Moon did have some significant weaknesses that could, under the right circumstances, work in favor of the Duchy.

The most important potential vulnerability was a rival heir contesting the throne. Just a few years before, the Kingdom of the Moon had been ruled by two brothers who, while both were still alive, got along and made a very effective team. After all, they had maintained their independence from the Ottoman Empire and even managed to annex some additional Ottoman lands. Trouble began, however, when one of the brothers died and the surviving brother made his son, the Lord of the Red Moon, the heir of the throne. His cousin, who called himself the Lord of the Blue Moon, opposed the arrangement and had the support of several nobles. Under current conditions, there was no way the Lord of the Blue Moon could openly confront the ruler, but if the Lord of the Red Moon’s forces suffered some defeats, it was possible the situation to the south could change.

The Grand Duke considered the news of the rival heir important. He did not plan to make an alliance with the Lord of the Blue Moon, but the prospect of a civil war in the Kingdom of the Moon, should the Lord of the Red Moon’s forces be weakened, would play into his plans if he could win some battles on Danubian territory.

The Danubian ruler did not harbor any illusions his Army could possibly match the Kingdom of the Moon’s army in a traditional battle on open ground. The only hope of winning a fight with the enemy would be to combine modern and traditional Danubian tactics, which would entail luring the invaders into a location favorable to the Danubians. How many such locations were there in Hórkustk Ris Province? Well, in the past there would have been plenty. During the reign of King Vladik the Defender, the area was heavily forested, allowing the last Danubian King to fight the Ottomans using guerrilla tactics. For a century after the King’s victories, the trees remained as the Duchy’s most important line of defense. However, settlers, both Danubian and foreign, had since cut down most of the forest, leaving only a narrow strip between the capitol and Hórkustk Ris. Now the only feature marking the official southern border was a small river and a low-lying range of hills. The hills were still partially forested, but the land immediately to the north was not.

The Grand Duke studied maps and pondered from where his army could launch raids. He found very few suitable locations, of which most were away from the main road leading though Hórkustk Ris and thus could be bypassed very easily. Still, there were some possibilities, including some areas along the East Danube River, or possibly the city of Hórkustk Ris itself. However, for any such plan to work the Grand Duke had to have a full understanding of his enemies and the way command decisions were implemented in the Kingdom of the Moon.

Fortunately for the Duchy, the Danubian Grand Duke had an excellent network of informants that had been established by his father. A couple of his spies had direct access to the Lord of the Red Moon and two of his top generals. The Danubian ruler was interested in the Kingdom’s battle tactics, equipment, and troop strength, but he was even more interested in understanding the thinking and psychology of his enemies. He knew from the beginning the only hope he had of winning the upcoming war would be to find out about any psychological vulnerabilities of the enemy leaders and try to outsmart them.

The Kingdom of the Moon had an excellent army and cavalry. They were seasoned veterans that had humiliated the Sultan’s army over the past two decades, men who were proud, competent, and well-trained. They totally disdained their opponents and enjoyed killing and torturing “inferior” prisoners. They had done some horrible things to Turkish captives, so it was safe to assume if they ever seized control of the Duchy, its people would suffer tremendously. The Army of the Kingdom of the Moon had never suffered a defeat, so they were confident to a fault.

The Army of the Moon’s tactics usually focused on an initial artillery barrage followed by charging into an enemy’s position with massive force to overwhelm any opposition. Much of the strategy relied on speed and terror. The strategy had been employed against Ottoman and rival lords’ cities, forts, castles, and hilltop positions over the past two decades. It had always worked, so it was predictable. As the Grand Duke and his commanders studied battle after battle won by the Army of the Moon, the over-all pattern of the fighting was always the same: the artillery barrage, the overwhelming charge, and then atrocities against the conquered.

The Danubian leader pondered his enemy’s strategy: always the same… predictable… overwhelming force… terror… confidence… and maybe… over-confidence?

There was another clue provided by an informant as he repeated a couple of jokes and mocking comments made by the Lord of the Red Moon to his commanders about the Duchy’s towns and the fact most Danubian settlements still had city walls. The Lord of the Red Moon had mentioned how much fun it would be to blast away every city wall in the Duchy, for the cowardly Danubians to watch in terror as their medieval defenses fell, and give them time to think about their fates before they were slaughtered.

The Grand Duke fully understood that his enemy was planning genocide against the Danubian people. The Lord of the Red Moon viewed the inhabitants of the Duchy as inferior and as illegitimate occupiers of land he needed for the great Kingdom he was putting together. Only “great countries” had the right to exist in Europe and the Duchy was not a “great country”. So…it needed to be obliterated.

The Grand Duke knew that any effort to counter an invasion from the south had only one chance of succeeding. The Danubians absolutely had to win their first battle. If they did not, there would be no opportunity to withdraw and fight a second battle: they would be overwhelmed. Everything the Grand Duke had read or heard about the Lord of the Red Moon indicated his army would come to any location the Danubians chose to defend, with the expectation of overrunning their positions and inflicting a crushing defeat. That knowledge gave the Danubian ruler a critical advantage: he could choose any location he wanted for his army to make its stand. So…the question would be: where to fight that critical battle? What location in Hórkustk Ris province would give the Danubians their greatest advantage?

* * *

Silvítya spent much of March kneeling by the Grand Duke’s side at his throne, cringing as he ran his fingers through her hair. He spent day after day talking to his military commanders about the Duchy’s preparations. He also spent hours with councilmen from villages that had been attacked and over-run by the Kingdom of the Moon, with the hope of gathering additional information about the Kingdom and how its army operated. In spite of the uncomfortable posture and humiliating situation she had to endure, she carefully listened to everything being said. No one was bothered by her presence: she was just a naked concubine and certainly could pose no threat.

Whenever she had any free time at all, Silvítya perused the Royal Library’s books and maps to fully understand what was going on to the south. She quickly realized the Duchy was in very grave danger. At first she wondered about trying to escape the castle with Antonia and fleeing north, but she knew that her Path in Life was not to live as a refugee from a defeated country. She was a Danubian, sworn to serve the Duchy and its ruler, whether she liked him or not. Fítoreckt’s final words came back to haunt her thoughts:

That is not to say the Ancients will not call upon you to serve. I firmly believe they will, but the manner in which you serve will be different from what your Mistress and I envisioned. Be patient and continue learning. Perhaps you will find yourself in a position to temper and influence the actions and decisions of our nation’s leader. How many of us can make such a claim?

The next time the Grand Duke called his favorite concubine to his bed-chamber, the Grand Duke forced her to have sex by forcing her to assume the submissive posture and taking her from behind. He conducted his usual routine of fingering her anus and silently threatening to sodomize her, but as usual, did not carry out that threat. She bathed him and allowed him to fondle her scalp. The humiliating treatment would make what she had to do much harder, but she forced herself to speak. “Your Majesty, your humble serving girl wishes to know if you need her to do anything to assist or prepare for the Duchy’s defense.”

At first the Grand Duke was surprised by the question. It meant she had been paying attention to the conversations…but…what was he thinking? Of course she had been paying attention. This girl is different from the others…smarter and more aware of her surroundings. Indeed, she can be of use to me.

“You mentioned training your companions in medicine, is that not so, my favorite minx?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, that is so.”

“That training is no longer optional. You will teach your companions to become field doctors. I will see about sending some of the castle’s other women to you. Write down an instruction plan and tell me what supplies you will need.”

“Your humble serving girl will need some of the books from the Followers’ collection, Your Majesty, along with parchment and ink. Your humble serving girl will need alchemy ingredients and medical instruments. Your humble serving girl will need some dead bodies, and later she will need some live pigs for practices and a person willing to injure them.”

“Yes. I will supply you with what you need. Train your sisters. Tell them that anyone who fails to learn will face the switch and the pillory. A motivated student is an attentive student, is that not so?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, that is so.”

* * *

The Grand Duke tasked one of his most trusted soldiers to help Silvítya gather what she would need to train the castle women as field doctors. The man was Protector Alexándrekt Buláshckt, the Royal Guard responsible for bringing her to the castle the previous summer. She felt apprehensive having to face him after the rough and condescending treatment she had endured during the first day she was with him. However, she hoped to find out what happened to her bucket and to have a source of news from the outside.

She expected him to treat her in the same rude manner he had treated her before. However, Protector Buláshckt seemed completely different, addressing her with courtesy and speaking to her in a normal manner. She told him what she needed and what the items were for. He sent for a couple of horses and told her she’d be leaving the castle with him. While they waited, the concubine and the Protector discussed medicine at length, including emergency field operations. He was impressed with her knowledge upon hearing about some of the operations she performed during the summer of 1752.

He was even more impressed to learn she had been a Follower of the Ancients. She was not the ignorant peasant girl that he imagined when she was taken into custody. He did something no one had ever done in her life: he apologized, asking her pardon for calling her an “idiot” and a “dumb peasant girl” the previous year. She was surprised, because no one ever apologized to her about anything.

When the horses were ready, one of the castle matrons brought a red scarf and wrapped Silvítya’s hair. Although concubines were not allowed to braid their hair, it would not be acceptable to have one of the Grand Duke’s women wandering outside the castle with her hair loose. The red scarf also protected her by identifying her as a concubine and therefore as property of the Grand Duke. The matron also handed over a pair of red shoes to protect her feet. Silvítya would go out with her head covered and her feet protected, but otherwise would remain naked.

The day was overcast and chilly, but to a young woman who was used to being naked, the temperature was bearable. She ignored the chill, happy to have the chance to see something besides the interior of the castle. She followed her escort to the main city market and to several alchemy shops to search for potion ingredients and other medical supplies, such as metal instruments and wood for splints. She selected several small pigs that would be used for live practices. Protector Buláshckt paid the seller to take them to the castle.

Everywhere she went in the city, Silvítya had to endure the stares of everyone around her. She was not in any physical danger, but her red scarf and uncovered body subjected her to curious glances from the women and lustful stares from the men and boys. Her escort took the shortest routes possible and tried to move quickly to minimize the time she had to spend outside, but several thousand residents saw the naked concubine as she rode through the narrow streets and walked around the marketplaces. It seemed that every one of her spectators had to stare at her. She never imagined she’d actually be glad to return to the castle, but after being gawked at all day she was really looking forward to getting back.

The final stop was at the Temple of the Ancients, where she would have to go to obtain cadavers. Purchasing the bodies would not be difficult: there were plenty of destitute refugee families living outside the capital who were unable to give their dead relatives proper burials. Many desperate families would be happy to release their relatives’ corpses in exchange for having money to buy food for several weeks.

Silvítya approached a Priest, who told her to kneel and wait until an Apprentice could deal with her request. After several minutes of kneeling with her face to the ground and being forced to completely expose herself to Protector Buláshckt, a pair of female Temple Apprentices dressed in ragged black seminary robes approached to take her request. By very unfortunate coincidence one of the women had been one of her fellow initiates during her year in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. Silvítya’s former companion was totally shocked to see her in the capital and wearing, of all things, a concubine’s scarf.

The former Followers badly wanted to catch up on each other’s news, but Silvítya’s embarrassing predicament prevented them from having any meaningful conversation. Silvítya explained about purchasing cadavers and having them delivered to the castle. The Apprentice wrote down the request. They were about to part ways when she commented, “Follower Danka…I need to ask…what…I mean…what happened to you? How did you enter His Majesty’s service…as a concubine?”

Tears welled up in Silvítya’s eyes, but she forced herself to respond:

“Hubris, Apprentice. My soul was full of hubris and the Ancients chose to punish me. Things like this happen when hubris makes a person stupid and that person acts on her stupidity. I was a fool, with my head full of pride and foolish thoughts. If you knew what I was thinking at the time my Path in Life crossed with that of His Majesty, you would agree the punishment the Ancients gave me was just.”

* * *

Silvítya set up a make-shift medical school in an empty Royal Guard barracks located in the city at the base of the hill where the castle was located. The location forced the concubines to leave the castle each day. The classes started at the beginning of April, but fortunately, spring that year had come early to the Duchy, so the weather was warm enough for the women to walk down the hill in relative comfort. They put on their red scarves and shoes and, under the escort of Protector Buláshckt and one of his squad members, cheerfully made the trek. Although their days no longer were spent in idle relaxation, they enjoyed the walks and the chance to get away from the confines of the castle. It was nice to have the chance to exercise and see the East Danube River and a portion of the city.

The Grand Duke originally had planned for the concubines to conduct their medical training inside the castle, but Silvítya reminded him about the cadavers and pigs. She persuaded him to move the teaching venue when she asked, “You humble serving girl wishes to know of Your Majesty truly wants dead bodies and screaming pigs inside the Royal Household. Perhaps Your Majesty would prefer a different location?”

The concubines already had received some medical training from their spokeswoman, but it was mostly related to women’s healthcare, potion-making, and disease prevention. The women now would receive training that would be totally different: treating injuries. On the first day Silvítya started the lesson by killing and dissecting a pig. The cadavers had not yet arrived, and the spokeswoman figured it would be less traumatic for her class to be used to looking at dead animals before having to deal with looking at dead humans.

Silvítya wondered about the castle doctors. The Royal Household did have several doctors, but none of them had come to the class to assist with the teaching or monitor what was going on. It turned out the Grand Duke had sent the rest of his medical staff to be with his troops while they were training. There was another reason no castle doctors were present: the Grand Duke wanted the women trained according to the practices of the Followers of the Ancients, with no interference from his staff, whose training had been very different.

On the second day of class, the concubines were joined by six wives of Royal Guards. The six newcomers totally ruined the day for the instructor by assuming they were superior to their naked instructor and ten naked classmates. No…that would not do. Silvítya would have to remove them from the class or force them to behave if she were to teach.

The sovereign’s solution was simple: the wives would have to strip before leaving the castle and accompany the concubines as they walked in the nude down the hill. The wives would spend the entire day as naked as their classmates. The Grand Duke added two more rules to make sure there was no more friction among the students. Any student, whether she was a concubine or castle wife, would have to kneel when talking to the instructor. Also, the instructor would carry a leather switch and had the Grand Duke’s explicit authority to use it on any student causing trouble or failing to perform.

The six wives were aghast the next morning when Protector Buláshckt ordered them to undress, while Silvítya tapped the switch in her hand. Their pride and arrogance vanished immediately. They huddled together and walked very slowly down the hill. Silvítya realized she had the chance to exercise her authority by demanding they uncover themselves and walk normally. After several warnings, she ordered the worst offender to place her hands on a fence. When the woman desperately looked at Protector Buláshckt, he responded:

“You heard His Majesty’s orders, just as well as I did. You are commanded to obey your instructor. Disobedience merits the switch. What part of that can’t you comprehend? Now, you will place your hands on the fence and accept punishment. If you don’t, I will report your disobedience to His Majesty and he will deal with you directly.”

The woman started to cry, but she reluctantly placed her hands on the fence and stuck out her bottom. Silvítya struck a hard blow across both sides. The woman shrieked and pulled away, holding her injured backside with her hands. Protector Buláshckt pulled out his sword.

“Hands on the fence, bottom out. Quit dishonoring yourself with your cowardice.”

Silvítya delivered four additional hard strokes. The wife shrieked and pulled away with each new welt, only to face the Royal Guard’s sword and a warning to resume her position. After the fifth stroke, Silvítya ordered all six wives to kneel and concluded with:

“Now, you’ve heard your orders and you will comply with them. You will continue walking, at a normal pace, with a normal posture, and with your hands at your sides. You might as well pretend you’re concubines, because as long as you are with me, you are no better than any of your classmates. Remember, if you had just treated us with respect yesterday, none of this would be happening to you.”

Silvítya could tell that Protector Buláshckt and his squad member were thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. They knew the arrogant wives and relished the sight of them being humbled by, of all people, a concubine.

* * *

Silvítya realized that she had a gift for explaining things such as complicated medical procedures and operations. Her peasant background assisted her, because she felt much more comfortable demonstrating with her hands instead of just talking and pointing to pictures in her medical texts. Every lesson revolved around hands-on practice with cadavers or injured pigs; from the very first day the women were expected to get their hands dirty.

The instructor had proven her willingness to use the switch with the Guards’ wives. Knowing that they would have no recourse if they misbehaved, none of the visiting women dared test their instructor again. They were afraid of Silvítya, but all they had to do was follow her instructions to the best of their ability and nothing would happen to them.

Oddly, the next woman in the group to face the switch was Antonia. Silvítya’s lover did not understand that when she was instructing, the personal relationship they shared was irrelevant. Antonia had to learn field surgery just as much as any other student, but Silvítya could tell that she was taking the class for granted and not paying attention to the careful calculations needed to administer anesthesia. When it was her turn to anesthetize and operate on a pig that had been shot with two arrows and had a broken leg, Antonia totally botched the assignment. The pig died from an overdose because Antonia had improperly prepared the formulas for both the general anesthesia and the local pain-killer.

Silvítya was furious, partly because a pig had been wasted and partly because by slacking off, Antonia was inadvertently challenging her authority. She ordered her student to bend over the instruction table. At first Antonia was bewildered by the command; not yet realizing the instructor was dead serious.

“If that pig had been a Royal Guard, what would have happened, Sister Antonia? What would have happened?”

“Well…uh…Sister…I would have been more careful…but it was just a pig…”

“It was practice for reality! It was not ‘just a pig’! I can tolerate mistakes…those happen! But I will not tolerate a person who dishonors herself through negligence! That I will not tolerate! You will suffer the consequences of your negligence, you will learn from your dishonor, you will try the operation again, and the next time you will succeed! And now, you will suffer the consequences! Bend over the table, with your bottom facing the class. Hold the edge with your hands…”

“Sister Silvítya…seriously…you can’t…”

“Oh…you think I can’t? I believe I can, because His Majesty clearly gave me the authority to discipline you. And so…what makes you special, Sister Antonia?”

Antonia’s expression reflected total shock and hurt at the instructor’s last comment. Her eyes met Silvítya’s, silently begging to be let off. 'You know what makes me special', she plead with her look. 'I love you. Doesn’t that matter?'

Silvítya tapped the table with her switch. 'No, it does not matter', she silently replied with her unyielding expression. 'You love me at night. You are my student during the day. You’re no different than anyone else.'

“You’re already facing 15 strokes for incompetence, inattention, and disobedience, Sister Antonia. If I need to tie you, I will make it 25. Do as I say. Bend over and hold the edge.”

Silvítya banged the table with her switch. Tears welled up in Antonia’s eyes. She couldn’t believe the person she most loved could do this to her. Trembling, she bent over the table, with her face towards the wall and her bottom in clear view of 15 classmates and two Royal Guards.

Silvítya faced her task with very conflicted thoughts. She was furious about the wasted pig, but even more angry that Antonia had placed her in such a difficult situation. Everyone knew that Antonia was the person closest to Silvítya. Therefore, the students, especially the six military wives, were carefully watching to see how their instructor would handle her. Silvítya knew she would have to be harsh with her lover if she wanted the others to take her seriously. It was an opportunity to make everyone, including Antonia, understand she was not about to show any favoritism.

Silvítya also knew her relationship with Antonia would be forever changed. Until that moment, there had been nothing but tenderness between the two women. Silvítya knew that Antonia would be devastated for days, and that it was very possible the relationship would end. Silvítya did not want to lose her lover, but she couldn’t jeopardize her standing with the Grand Duke or her class.

Silvítya felt something else as she rubbed the switch over her lover’s trembling bottom. She was aroused. She was very surprised and felt guilty about it, but she realized she was becoming wet between her legs.

Silvítya struck hard with a severe blow that was even more severe than the first stroke she gave to the guard’s wife. Antonia cried out from the shock of the blow. Her hands immediately covered her injured bottom. Silvítya shouted:

“Lie down, Sister Antonia, and do not try covering yourself again! If you dare disobey me a second time, I will hit you 25 times. Now, is that what you want?”

Antonia sobbed: “No Sister.”

“The lie down. Face forward, hands on the table, feet on the floor, legs spread. DO IT!”

Shaking with fear, hurt, and humiliation, Antonia complied. She sobbed throughout the rest of the punishment, but did not dare move. Silvítya struck, waited for each welt to rise so she could clearly see it and avoid crossing it, and struck again. Although she was not used to wielding the switch, she had witnessed enough punishments in Sebérnekt Ris to know how they needed to be carried out.

After finishing with the 15th stroke, the instructor ordered Antonia to stand in front of the class, with her hands on the wall and her back arched to display the darkening welts on her punished bottom. The girl’s body shook with sobs. Fortunately, she did not have to stay in that position for very long, because the day was almost over. Silvítya ordered the other students to clean the room and carve up the dead pig so the meat could be delivered to the castle’s main kitchen. As they went about their duties, the students constantly glanced at Antonia’s trembling bottom, watching as the welts grew darker.

Antonia’s face was still streaked with tears as the group trudged up the hill towards the castle. When the concubines bathed for the night, Antonia sat silently in the water, soaking her injured bottom. Silvítya did not approach her, but some of the other women tried to comfort her. Silvítya slept alone that night. Antonia slept in her own bed.

Antonia did not speak to Silvítya for three days. During that time she practiced preparing anesthesia and making sure the measurements were correct. When Silvítya felt she was ready for another hands-on test, she managed to sedate and successfully operate on the injured pig. The second animal survived its ordeal.

That night, Antonia shyly returned to Silvítya’s bedchamber. She didn’t say anything, but she allowed Silvítya to take her in her arms and comfort her in bed. Silvítya sat on her bed and pulled Antonia over her thighs so she could gently caress the bruises and massage her still-tender backside. Antonia greatly enjoyed lying across her lover’s lap with her hand gently caressing her bottom. The submissive position became part of their nightly routine: Antonia lying across Silvítya’s lap and enjoying having her bottom gently traced with her lover’s fingertips and massaged. Silvítya enjoyed the new routine as well. As much as punishing Antonia had excited her, she hoped she’d never have to mark those lovely bottom-cheeks a second time.

The two women never spoke about the discipline incident. On the surface it appeared their relationship had returned to normal. However, Antonia’s personality changed: she became quieter and even more submissive than she had been before. During their remaining time together, she was careful to obey Silvítya and comply with anything she wanted. Silvítya realized she could have converted Antonia into her personal servant had she so desired. She wanted to talk to her lover about the switching, but that conversation never happened.

* * *

Throughout the late spring, the Grand Duke kept Silvítya in his bed chamber to share his bath, after he had satisfied himself with his other concubines and she had finished her medical instruction for the day. He spent countless hours with his favorite servant, talking about the Duchy’s military dilemma and possible options. He really was not talking to her at all: he was just thinking out loud and needed another person in the room; one who was presumably harmless, to allow his mind to work through the thinking process. It indeed was true that she would never do anything to counter his plans or betray him. She was his subject after all but, more importantly, she was a Danubian who wanted her nation and her people to survive. It sounded like the Lord of the Red Moon was a very frightening enemy. It was unlikely anyone in the castle, not even the concubines, would be spared if the Army of the Moon took over Danúbikt Móskt. She would do whatever she could to assist her ruler. As flawed a man as he might be, the Grand Duke was the Duchy’s only hope for surviving the looming crisis.

About two weeks after she punished Antonia, Silvítya spent a normal evening with the Grand Duke, first satisfying him sexually in the company of two other concubines, and then sitting alone with him in his bath. She massaged his back and legs. He became hard and ordered her to bend over the side of the bath so he could take her from behind. Then she dried him off and he took her to his bed so she could give him a final massage for the night. The ruler was not able to relax. He suddenly sat up and turned to his servant:

“I have a question and you will answer. When you fled from the mountains and went to Sebérnekt Ris, what exactly happened to the Followers’ settlement? I understand that it exploded, at a great cost to the True Believers I believe, but I need to know the details of how that happened. How exactly did the settlement explode? How did your Elders prepare for it?”

Silvítya told her master what she knew, which was frustratingly little. She believed there must have been a series of tubes connecting holes in the ground with hollowed-out spaces in the buildings that contained musket powder. The Grand Duke countered that musket powder could not have made such violent explosions: it had to be something else, or at least special musket powder that had somehow been altered to produce an enhanced detonation.

“I am commanding you to figure out how those explosions were created. I have settled on a plan to defend the Duchy, but that plan depends on you finding out how your Elders managed to create those blasts. I will give you free access to the papers I’ve taken from the Cult and anything else you need, but you absolutely have to find that formula and replicate it. And the fuses as well. I need to know how those fuses were created. Your life depends on it. The Duchy’s life depends on it. And if you need further convincing, you might consider what the Lord of the Red Moon would do to Servant Antonia, if he ever gets his hands on her.”

Silvítya felt sick to her stomach. So, the Grand Duke did know about her relationship with Antonia. However, that didn’t matter. What mattered was he had touched on the one person Silvítya would do anything to protect. He couldn’t have chosen a better way to motivate her to figure out the mystery of the Followers’ explosive powder and how to replicate it.

“Yes, Your Majesty. To hear is to obey.”

Silvítya spent an entire afternoon of frantic searching in the secret annex of the Royal Library. She suspected the formula would be written in archaic Danubian in Babáckt Yaga’s coded script, which narrowed her quest considerably. Sure enough, after sunset she found what she was looking for, a diagram of the settlement with coded images of the fuse lines. A few minutes later she found the formula for making the fuses and waterproofing them. She later found several versions of the explosives recipe, all written in archaic Danubian. She realized the variations were designed to focus blasts depending on where they were located and what needed to be blown up. Although she already had what she needed, she continued searching to see if there was anything else that could be useful to the Royal Army. She was rewarded by finding the recipe for making the Followers’ explosive goose eggs.

Silvítya spent the next several days in the Grand Duke’s study, dictating Babáckt Yaga’s coded script into modern Danubian while he wrote down the formulas in his own hand. Unknowingly, she was providing him with yet more inventions he would eventually claim credit for. Upon assuring himself the formulas were accurate and would provide the explosions he needed, he would burn Babáckt Yaga’s texts and retain only what was in his handwriting. Even in an hour of grave danger, the ruler’s thoughts never strayed from shameless plagiarism.

* * *

The Royal Army of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia was at full strength by the middle of May. The Austrian muskets had arrived, so the men spent countless hours practicing with their new weapons. The cavalry units rode around the countryside to the east of the capital practicing maneuvers and leading enemy horsemen into ambushes and traps. Meanwhile, traditional archers with crossbows practiced around the buildings of the capitol, which was something the men thought was very strange. Wouldn’t it make more sense to go into the forest and practice there, since that was the place from which the Duchy had always been defended?

The Grand Duke vanished for a couple of days with several alchemists and explosives experts. There were a series of very loud explosions that terrorized local villagers and could be heard as muffled booms in the capital. The ruler returned, satisfied that his experimental new explosives and ingenious fuses had worked exactly as he had hoped. His chemists immediately set to work creating wagons-full of the new explosives, countless fathoms of fuse line, and large containers shaped like bowls. The mood of the troops improved when rumors spread that the Grand Duke had invented a secret weapon and was planning to use it in the upcoming campaign.

One of the Grand Duke’s final tasks before starting the campaign was to pick his most trusted medical team. Yes, he had the castle medics and field doctors, but now he also had 17 women with knowledge of the practices of the Followers of the Ancients. He decided to split the women. The majority of the concubines would stay behind in the castle to take care of any needs arising in the Royal Household, while four military wives and three concubines would accompany the Royal Army. His favorite concubine would lead the group. Fortunately for Silvítya’s peace of mind, Antonia was among those remaining behind at the castle.

* * *

The Grand Duke and his top generals received blessings from the Grand Prophet of the Danubian Church in the Great Temple of the Ancients on the final day of May in 1754. Silvítya and her two fellow concubines were among the Royal entourage, dressed in lavender dresses and wearing the red headscarves that marked them as the Grand Duke’s women. It felt strange to be wearing clothing again after having spent nearly a year in the nude.

It was also strange to watch the Grand Duke kneeling to receive a benediction. She knew he was not the least bit religious, but he had to put on a performance to satisfy his soldiers and the people of the capital. Immediately after the blessing, the Duke’s men would start their journey south. Many of the men, perhaps most of them, perhaps all of them, would never see the capital again.

The Grand Duke had received information that the Lord of the Red Moon had assembled his army and was preparing to move northward. The enemy had received assurances from other European countries that no one would send aid to the Duchy. Throughout the rest of Europe, rulers and advisors had written-off the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia. Within a few weeks the country would cease to exist and the rest of Europe could move forward with grand international plans to attack the Ottoman Empire. The Duchy was looked upon as a stone in the road that needed to be kicked aside.

The Grand Duke had to give a speech: everyone expected that from him. However, he did not want the world to remember him for bombastic words of victory, should that victory elude him. He gave a very short statement:

“Today we march: tomorrow we will discover where our Paths in Life will lead us, and how much longer our Paths will continue. I do not know our fate, anymore than any other soul in this city would know our fate. We will either lose and die by our enemy’s hand, or we will win and return. The Creator and the Ancients will make that decision.”

The Grand Duke looked around at his subjects and concluded:

“I will not see any of you again if we are not victorious. My Path in Life is the same as the Duchy’s Path in Life. Without the Duchy and the men who are defending it, I am nothing. I will show my face to this city only when I think the Duchy’s fate is secure. So…for those of you who remain behind, I ask that you pray for us, and you pray that I, and the men standing with me, will once again see our fair land. When that moment comes, it will be a happy one for all of us.”

There was no cheering, because the Duchy’s citizens knew how serious their situation had become. Instead, as the Grand Duke and his entourage departed, the entire city sang an ancient ballad of farewell. It was the same song the residents of the capitol sang in 1531, when King Vladik the Defender left the city for the last time in his life, to fight his final battle against the invading Ottomans.

Chapter Seventeen – The Battle of Hórkustk Ris

The Grand Duke and his entourage left the capital and crossed the Rika Chorna river in a fleet of ferries. He commented to his commanders that, if he survived the upcoming war, he’d have to build a bridge to span the river closer to the capitol. It was ridiculous to have to cross like this, in boats like common cargo.

The Danubian Royal Army already was encamped on the south bank, opposite the city. As soon as the sovereign showed up, the men began their trek southwards. There were 9,000 fighting men, plus another 2,000 wagon drivers, cooks, medics, and scouts. All of the men wore colorful ceremonial tunics with embroidered griffins as they departed the capital. The scouts rode ahead, followed by the light cavalry and archers. The musketeers marched in the center, with the cannon crews and supply trains bringing up the rear. As they marched out of the capitol in their colorful new tunics they made an impressive sight. Thousands of women, children, older people, and refugees watched as they left, heartened by seeing the uniforms and the soldier’s new muskets.

Silvítya and her companions rode with the other medics, dressed in the traditional gray dresses of regular female servants of the Crown. The concubines wore their traditional red scarves, but underneath the scarves their hair was braided. It was very nice to be “decent” by Danubian standards, after spending nearly a year with her hair freakishly and indecently loose. The handful of medical women contrasted with a formation that otherwise was all male. They did not ride with their sovereign, who instead was riding with his commanders, but he kept them within his sight at all times.

Silvítya and her companions knew that their ruler had brought them for two reasons. Yes, they would be needed as medics, but the Grand Duke also needed to have women for sex. He could have ordered his troops to bring him peasant girls captured from nearby villages, but he did not want to waste his soldiers’ time on such matters, nor do anything to anger or demoralize local citizens. It was just easier to bring some concubines from the castle, in spite of the risk he was forcing them to assume by taking them into a war zone.

* * *

In spite of his army’s new muskets and careful planning, Silvítya could tell that the Grand Duke was extremely worried. The sovereign did not expect to be attacked in the woods, but his force would have been ready had that happened. The archers immediately would vanish into the forest to cover the light cavalry or the musketeers, who would either charge or pull back and lead the enemy into a trap, depending on how the attack played out. However, because the Danubians were such skilled forest fighters and deadly archers, it would have been extremely foolish for any enemy, even the army of the Kingdom of the Moon, to challenge them in the forest.

The Danubians’ disadvantage would begin the moment they stepped out into the cleared lands surrounding Hórkustk Ris. 9,000 men may have seemed like a lot for handling any problem to a Danubian inexperienced with the outside world, but a 9,000-man army was a paltry force for Europe at that time. The Danubian monarch knew that there was not a chance his army could survive a pitched battle against an enemy capable of fielding four times the number of troops and guns.

Silvítya knew that the Grand Duke had planned to lead the Lord of the Red Moon’s soldiers into a trap that would involve explosives created from the recipes she had divulged to him a few weeks before. The strategy was risky, because the enemy would have to be lured into a small area that had previously been prepared. If the enemy ended up anywhere other than the precise location where the explosives had been laid, the plan would not work. Yes, if monarch was able to successfully carry out his plans, the Danubians had a good chance of winning the crucial initial battle. However, to win that first fight, and the rest of the war for that matter, everything had to go right. How often in life does everything go right?

As soon as the troops were only a half-day’s march south of Danubkt Moskt, the ruler ordered them to stop. He ordered all of his men to take off their colorful ceremonial tunics and passed out ones that were dull brown. The Danubian griffin was embroidered on the new tunics, but with brown thread that was only a shade darker than the background. The soldiers suddenly became very drab, but also much less visible from a distance. There was another set of uniforms to be passed out: clothing that was colored like the uniforms of the Army of the Red Moon. The men muttered among themselves. They were Danubians. Why were they assuming the dishonor of dressing like the enemy?

The Grand Duke knew the men would object and was ready. He climbed onto a wagon and addressed those who could hear him. He explained the purpose of the clothing; that it was part of a carefully laid-out plan to defeat an enemy boasting a much larger force. He challenged their notion of “honor”. In war the only “honor” was doing what was necessary to safeguard the country. He concluded:

“Today, we march to defend Danubia! If we succeed in re-taking our lands, that will be our honor! If we die and our families are killed, that is our dishonor! The great King Vladik understood that! I understand that! I also understand that, as your ruler, what will honor me is not just saving our land, but also keeping as many of you alive as possible! You are not marching to die for Danubia! You are marching to kill for Danubia! You will obey me, you will kill, and you will return to your wives before the first snow! For me, that is the only honor! The rest is dishonor!”

Reluctantly at first, but then with more enthusiasm, the troops cheered their leader. The disguises were only the beginning. They did not yet know to what extent the Grand Duke was willing to force them to do “dishonorable” things in the name of defending Hórkustk Ris.

* * *

The march through the woods was alarmingly short. The large stretches of forest that had defended the Duchy for centuries had been greatly reduced over the past 200 years. When they emerged into the southern province, it was obvious the time the Danubians could hide among the trees and wear down enemies with guerrilla warfare had ended. The forest was no longer large enough for hidden archers to hold back a determined enemy. Now the country would have to be defended in a more traditional manner.

As soon as they were in the open, Silvítya could see that Hórkustk Ris province was not at all like the rest of Danubia. The area was mostly treeless, the architecture was different, and, more importantly, as the army moved further south, the people became different. The Danubian Royal Army passed through one village in which the majority of the inhabitants were not even Danubian. The foreigners stared at the Duke’s army with fear and hostility.

The Grand Duke got a much warmer reception when his army reached Hórkustk Ris. The city was still under Danubian control, but the place was chaotic and crowded with refugees. Not wanting to risk having disease wipe out his men before they even got a chance to fight, the Grand Duke ordered the majority of the army to set up camp away from the city until he had a chance to dispose of the refugees.

The Duke, accompanied by the three concubines and his generals, entered the city. They were met by the mayor of Hórkustk Ris and the captain of the city’s guard. Under escort, the group made their way to the old castle, where they would be hosted until further notice. Silvítya could tell that not long before the city had been attractive, but now was very run down.

Silvítya and the other concubines were ordered to strip, bathe, dress in their lavender concubine gowns, and await the return of the Duke. While the military wives were treated to a more traditional dinner, the three concubines were forced to nervously wait in a study for their master to return. The castle women crowded around, staring at the newcomers and talking about them as though they were three strange animals.

Protector Buláshckt showed up to take charge of the Duke’s women, ordering them to set up their medical supplies. The military wives and other concubines went to sleep, but Silvítya decided to stay with the Royal Guard while he prepared his military equipment. He had one of the new muskets, but looked at the cumbersome weapon with total disdain. Yes, it made a terrifying sound and put out an impressive cloud of smoke when fired, but it took too long to re-load and was not accurate at all. He showed the concubine how it worked and allowed her to take a couple of practice shots. The Guard let the concubine try out his other weapons and was impressed that a woman could handle them so well. Silvítya talked about her previous training when she lived in Sebérnekt Ris. He was curious about the Duchy’s northern defenses, never having seen them in real life.

The Guard and his ward talked at length about military strategy, weapons, the Duchy’s military history, and the training given to the Royal Guards. Protector Buláshckt was impressed with Silvítya’s broad knowledge. Eventually their conversation returned to assessing the forces loyal to the Lord of the Red Moon and the upcoming battle. He detailed the Grand Duke’s plan of drawing the Kingdom’s army into the city and battling them in the streets. If the enemy could actually be lured into the city, the strategy could work.

“From what I know about the Red Moons, once they think their enemies have been weakened, they charge straight ahead and don’t ask any questions until they're done. There’s a good chance they won’t stop and worry about the explosives before it’s too late, because I don’t think anyone has ever tried luring them over such a trap in the past. I just hope they all come through the wall at once. If they’re smart enough to station, say, half of their army outside, His Majesty’s plan won’t succeed.”

Silvítya wondered about the city itself. What would happen to Hórkustk Ris?

“I don’t know. Most of it will be destroyed. His Majesty will order many of the buildings to be broken into or filled with explosives. The people will all be gone before the Red Moons arrive: His Majesty wants them away from the fighting. I suspect, if they ever come back, they will find only ashes.”

Meanwhile, the Grand Duke held a conference with the town’s mayor, a squad of Royal scouts, and one of his most trusted spies. Already the Lord of the Red Moon was aware that the Grand Duke had brought his entire army to defend Hórkustk Ris and he seemed eager to defeat the Danubians once and for all. The Lord of the Red Moon relished the chance to battle the Grand Duke, because once the he was defeated, there would be no one to defend Danúbikt Móskt and the entire Duchy could be annexed.

As soon as the Duke received his briefings, he issued a series of orders. The first order he gave was for all civilians to leave the city immediately. They mayor was not surprised, given that King Vladik had ordered the same for Sumy Ris two centuries before when he decided to abandon it to the Ottomans. However, unlike his predecessor, the Grand Duke did not have the option of simply abandoning Hórkustk Ris. The city was the most northern spot from where he could make his stand; abandoning it would leave open the road to the capital and the entire Rika Chorna valley.

The Grand Duke wanted to get the civilians out of the way for their own safety, but he also wanted to use them as part of his plan to deceive the Army of the Red Moon. The next day, the Grand Duke’s generals rounded up all of the civilian men and organized them into platoons, each under the direction of an old or sick soldier from his army. Then he passed out the colorful tunics his army had worn while marching out of Danube City. The men, disguised as Danubian soldiers, would march their families out of the city and northward into what remained of the forest.

Throughout the day, refugees poured out of the city. A total of 60,000 people left. From a distance, with the men carrying fake weapons and dressed in fake tunics, it did appear as though the Danubian Army had arrived to do nothing except evacuate the town and hide in the woods.

When the enemy commander heard about the evacuation, he broke out laughing. Typical of the Danubians…those cowards can’t deal with a real fight. They’re just a rabble of scared animals that can’t stand being away from their trees. I guess we’ll have to organize a hunt…

What the Lord of the Red Moon’s commanders did not know was that now, without the distraction of the civilians, the Grand Duke was ready to confront his enemies inside the walls of Hórkustk Ris with his entire army. The Grand Duke ordered most of his men and equipment into Hórkustk Ris the night after the civilians had left. Among the supplies entering the city were large wagons full of the explosives that would be the focus of the ruler’s plan to defeat the Kingdom of the Moon’s horde of fighters.

The next day, the mayor and the city councilmen noted with increasing alarm how their ruler was setting up for the town’s defense. The Duke’s cannon crews deployed their weapons in the streets throughout the city. Even many of the cannons on the city wall were turned around and faced inwards. The men built new firing positions on the platform running along the inside of the city wall, but those also faced inwards. The men went into the houses and smashed holes through the walls to plant traps and to allow themselves to move about without having to go outside and expose themselves to musket fire.

Wherever there was open space in the streets, the Duchy’s soldiers dug holes and filled them with large pots of loaded with explosives. The men then covered the pots with cobblestones, while demolition crews strung fathoms of fuse line to connect them. More traps were created by packing explosives into buckets and setting them up in residences. Throughout the city, the buildings were marked with red or white splashes of paint. Red meant the building contained explosives, while white meant the building was sturdier and would be used for protection. It was very obvious that the Grand Duke planned to fight his opponents inside the city walls, not outside. His strategy became evident: he was not planning a battle to save the city, but instead use it to create a trap and a massacre.

The ruler ordered the cavalry units to quietly leave during the second night after the Danubian Royal Army had occupied the settlement. The Grand Duke was forced to separate his forces in a move that was extremely risky. The cavalry would hide in nearby hills and wait for a special signal from the city’s cathedral bells. To ensure the signal still could be passed if anything happened to the cathedral tower, the Duke ordered two of the church bells brought down and re-mounted at the castle.

The Grand Duke ordered his men to gather all civilian clothing remaining in the houses, especially women’s clothing. His men wondered what on earth he was planning. Women’s clothing? Yes indeed, civilian clothes would be part of the trap the Duke planned for the Red Moon Army. He explained that no Danubian Army uniforms would be worn by anyone defending the city. The soldiers would dress to make it appear as though the Duke had completely abandoned the area and that the only people left to defend it would be local citizens and city guards. To make the deception even more convincing, some of the youngest troops, boys still in their teens, would be ordered to shave and put on women’s clothing. To finish converting the younger men into “women”, they would be ordered to wrap brown cloths around their heads to emulate long braided hair. The soldiers reacted with angry murmurs, but the Duke shouted.

“This plan must work and you must obey! I know what I’m doing! As I told you before, the only dishonor is allowing those foreigners to take our land and hang us on hooks and rape your sisters and wives! Is that what you want? Or do you want to listen to me and do what I tell you?”

The men stared silently at their Duke, unsure how to react. The idea of a man dressing as a woman, for any reason, completely went against what was considered honorable for a Danubian. The Grand Duke knew that, and understood that ordering some of his troops to dress up as women would be the hardest part of his plan to implement. However, he pushed forward.

“Listen to me, and listen carefully! We will either die here or we will win! There is no other option! We cannot retreat and we cannot negotiate our way out of this city! And if we lose, I will die along with the rest of you! It’s not just Danubia’s fate at stake here, but my own! Do you think I want my life to end here? Do you think I want to be captured and hung on a hook? Our fates, whether we win or lose, will be shared, mine along with yours! So I want to win! I want us to emerge from this city victorious! I want to reclaim our land! I want the enemy to never again set foot here! And I want this land to prosper! So, where is the dishonor?”

Once again, the Duke’s cold reasoning convinced his troops to set aside their reservations about their leader’s orders. The crisis of the moment passed. The ruler would get his way and his men would obey his wishes.

As she stood at the castle window watching him implement his plans and rally his troops, Silvítya momentarily admired the Grand Duke. He was a cruel and flawed man, but he had other qualities that made him the leader the Danubians needed during the crisis. At least he was no coward. By traveling south with his army he had placed his own life in jeopardy, demonstrating that he did not value his existence any more than he valued the existence of his men. If they died, he would die. He knew it had to be that way if he expected them to follow him and his increasingly strange orders.

He made decisions and plans based on carefully assessing what resources and options were available to him. He didn’t care about tradition or protocol: his only interest was doing what he thought was needed to win the upcoming battle. In spite of his inward fear, the ruler managed to show himself as completely confident in his abilities and his decisions when talking to his troops. Silvítya knew his behavior was totally deceptive. His show of public confidence was as much a ruse as the trap he was laying for the enemy. He knew how easily his entire battle plan could go wrong. He was frightened, both for his own safety and for that of the country. If events did not work out exactly the way he anticipated, he and everyone with him would be dead in a few days. History would judge him harshly, blaming him for the fall of the Duchy.

* * *

The army of the Lord of the Red Moon showed up the morning after the Danubian cavalry departed the city. They first appeared as a black mass moving under a thick cloud of dust on the southern horizon. For what seemed to be an eternity, both the dark mass and the dust cloud got bigger and bigger. As they got closer, the enemy’s individual companies and platoons could be seen. The Danubians watched as a seemingly endless horde of men moved in their direction. Hundreds…thousands…tens of thousands of men. Multitudes of siege cannons with their crews. Columns of horsemen. The flashing of tens of thousands of bayonets. Hundreds of black banners with the infamous red moon. This was not an army that was planning to take over a single partially abandoned city. This was the army that was going to conquer and exterminate the entire Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia.

The city’s defenders watched as several squads of enemy scouts rode close to the city, just out of range of the cannons, to see what the defenders looked like. The enemy’s observers had told their leaders that most of the Danubians had evacuated a few days before, but the city guards and some civilians remained, foolishly thinking they would hold the place for more than a few hours. Sure enough, as the scouts looked through their spy glasses, they could see the pathetic group of defenders they would be facing. It looked like the Danubians were so desperate that they actually had women on the walls with crossbows and a combination of guards and civilians manning the cannons.

The commander of the Red Moon Army decided not to even bother with attempting to negotiate surrender. If those people were stupid enough to stay behind while their leader abandoned them, then they deserved to die. And die they would. As soon as they broke through the walls, the Red Moon Army would kill everyone in the city. Any survivors would be impaled and hung on the walls. They would be the first Danubians to die…the first out of an entire country.

Disguised as a city guard commander, the Grand Duke watched the enemy surround the city. The enemy artillery crews quickly set up their siege cannons. The Danubian ruler ordered the city’s cannons to be fired and anyone on the wall with a crossbow to try to hit enemy soldiers. The Duchy’s resistance was ineffective, as it was meant to be. As soon as the Red Moon Army had its cannons deployed, they began firing simultaneously to clear the walls. Most of the Danubians on the ramparts sought cover and the city’s resistance became even more pathetic.

* * *

Silvítya and Protector Buláshckt stood at the window watching, while the other concubines, military wives, and serving wenches cowered and trembled from the noise. The guard and the concubine observed one of the towers on the wall come crashing down from a cannon blast, then watched as two more cannonballs demolished a portion of the cathedral’s roof. Silvítya started to wonder if the Duke’s plan really would work. If it didn’t, the passageway to the keep would soon be swarming with soldiers of the Kingdom of the Moon. Protector Buláshckt looked through all of the windows and noted that no other guards were in sight. No, this was not good. Yes, he had his musket, but so what? It fired a single shot and took a minute to reload. Against a platoon of enemies it would be about as useful as a club. Muttering under his breath, he cursed the Grand Duke and his fancy new weapons.

The guard grabbed a ceremonial sword off the wall and handed it to Silvítya. “Go down there and get yourself a guard helmet and some boots. Get me a crossbow or better yet, two if you can find them. A longbow will work, if there’s no crossbow. Also, I want as many arrows as you can bring up.”

He kicked two of the serving wenches. “Go with her. Take her to wherever your master keeps the archery supplies. She’s in charge and you will obey what she tells you.”

He turned back to Silvítya. “Remember, if you can’t find a crossbow, get me a longbow. And all the arrows you can carry. If you have to steal them, I don’t care. And don’t forget the helmet and boots for yourself.”

Holding her sword, Silvítya unbolted the heavy door to the keep. Three frightened women slipped out. One of the wenches led her companions along a secret passageway that passed the mayor’s office and led directly to the armory. A nervous-looking old city guard blocked their entrance. Silvítya was not surprised when he denied the women their request.

“Listen to me and listen carefully, old man! I come on the orders of Protector Buláshckt, who is a representative of the Grand Duke. In other words, I am acting on the Duke’s orders. If you choose to send me away empty-handed, Protector Buláshckt will have to come down and deal with you. You don’t want Protector Buláshckt coming down here and dealing with you.”

The concubine looked totally different now that she was giving orders and had a sword in her hand. The old guard said nothing more, but he opened the door to the armory. Silvítya put on a helmet and grabbed a guard tunic and pair of boots. She grabbed two crossbows that looked to be in good shape and slung them over her shoulder. She grabbed a longbow and loaded her companions down with satchels of crossbow bolts and arrows. She tossed aside the ceremonial sword and got a real one.

'Lord-Creator, I hope this is enough…'

A few minutes later they returned. Protector Buláshckt nodded with approval as he took the two crossbows and tested them. Meanwhile, Silvítya pulled off her dress and replaced it with a guard’s tunic. She put on the boots and the helmet, looking very strange in her new outfit. As the guard studied the course of the battle and prepared his weapons, Silvítya ordered the smartest-looking wench to serve as a lookout for the other side of the room. Then she took up a position next to Protector Buláshckt at the window that overlooked the passageway leading into the tower.

“You remember everything I taught you about the crossbow?”

“Most of it, Protector Buláshckt.”

“Good. If that passageway fills up with Red Moons, it will be our part in the war. I’ll fire, you’ll assist.” The guard looked at Silvítya. “I’ll be very pleased to have you at my side during this fight.”

“Thank you, Protector Buláshckt.”

“It’s our Path in Life, I believe, to face the enemy together. Anyhow, go calm the others and get some rest. There won’t be any rest when the Red Moons show up. I’ll call you when it’s time.”

Protector Buláshckt took off his civilian disguise and put on his colorful Danubian tunic. “I’m not hiding for this. I’m fighting as a Danubian.”

* * *

After an hour of being blasted by the Red Moon cannons, the city walls were in bad shape. The enemy commander studied the crumbling defenses, trying to figure out which spot would be the best place for his troops to force their way into the city. Finally, he settled on the city’s east gate, which seemed to be a few cannon shots from completely collapsing. It was at that point the Red Moon Army made their first serious mistake. To avoid wasting any more cannonballs, the attacking commanders ordered the cannon crews firing at other parts of the wall to cease and to prepare for the final assault on the city. Meanwhile, all the Red Moon cannons on the east side concentrated on the rapidly crumbling east gate as the ground troops massed and prepared to charge the opening.

The Danubian Grand Duke was elated. Now he knew exactly where the enemy was going to enter. The Danubians desperately rolled cannons into position in the plaza to fire at Red Moon cavalry as they stormed through the wall. Every window overlooking the east gate and the streets leading up to it was occupied by musketeers and archers, and more platoons of musketeers hid along the alleyways.

There was even time to make some final gunpowder traps for the streets. The Danubians hurriedly repositioned some of their pot-bombs and made sure the fuses would work. When the gate and the two towers overlooking it came crashing down, the Danubian Royal Army was ready.

The Army of the Red Moon sent 20,000 screaming soldiers into the city. There were 7,500 Danubian troops opposing them. As soon as the Army of the Red Moon scrambled over the wreckage of the east gate they fell straight into the Grand Duke's trap.

* * *

Precisely because the Lord of the Red Moon’s soldiers were so over-confident, discipline broke down during the mad dash to get past the walls. The invaders had nothing on their minds except slaughtering Danubians. The men in the back of the formation worried that the first platoons would do all the killing and not leave any of the city’s inhabitants for the men in the rear. Everyone was desperate to get in, so the hoard charged swiftly and recklessly.

The Duke had ordered a few dozen “civilians” and “women” to be near the gate when it fell. The moment the leading invading platoons saw them, the decoys retreated along the streets to lure the enemy into the city as quickly as possible. The elated invaders fired at the fleeing “civilians”, killing most of them. In spite of the loss of those troops, the ruse worked to trick the enemy into charging recklessly towards the cathedral.

For several minutes the only noise that could be heard was the victory screams of the Red Moon Army. Thousands of Red Moon troops crammed the streets as the Danubians stayed hidden and held their fire. The invaders began setting fire to the houses closest to the entry point, adding to the chaos and confusion. The Duke smiled to his commanders. This couldn’t possibly be any better.

“Ring the bells! Doc-Doc Danube!”


The church bells and the bells on the castle roof rang, signaling two orders at once. It was the call for the Danubian cavalry to leave its hiding place, and it was a call for the troops guarding the streets to fire their muskets and cannons and light the fuses for the street bombs.

As soon as the cathedral bells rang, small strange sparkling fires surrounded the Red Moon army, and then there was a roar unlike anything Silvítya had ever heard before. As the bells continued to clang, dozens of street bombs and cannons mixed with the shooting of thousands of muskets. Silvítya watched smoke and dust billow in the streets and dismembered bodies and body parts fly over the burning rooftops. The first roar of gunpowder died down. The women's hearing recovered from the explosion, but the noise of the blast gave way to the agonized screaming of thousands of wounded men. For the rest of her life, Silvítya would never be able to forget the din of all those dying voices.


The Danubians fired volley after volley at their helpless enemies, most of whom were trapped in the narrow streets among the bodies of their fallen comrades. Meanwhile, the Danubian cavalry charged the cannon crews still outside the city. Assuming their part in the fight was finished, the invader’s cannon crews had stood down as soon as the infantry charged the east gate. They were completely unprepared to defend themselves against a cavalry attack. The Danubian cavalrymen, enraged at the sight of the wrecked city, killed all of them within a few minutes.

Surviving Red Moon infantrymen fanned out from the initial kill-zone and fought the Danubians house-to-house. The Danubians retreated through the holes in the walls, setting fires and laying traps for the invaders. Any soldier from the Red Moon Army that got close to the remains of the outer city wall fell to an arrow fired from one of the many archers stationed along the platform.


The entire eastern half of Hórkustk Ris was now on fire. The Danubians withdrew across the city’s plaza and set up their cannons among the undamaged buildings on the west side, with the intention of creating another kill-zone in the open area in front of the cathedral. At that point the Danubians made their only mistake that day: they did not adequately guard the entrance to the castle. The surviving invaders surged into the plaza, desperately exchanging fire with the Grand Duke’s army. The Danubians were firing from sheltered positions while the Red Moon troops were firing from the open, so within a few minutes the plaza was full of dead and dying enemy soldiers. However, about 200 men managed to slip past the cathedral and kill a Danubian squad defending the road leading up the castle. They realized that if they could get to the castle keep, they’d have an excellent spot from which they could defend themselves and command a large portion of the city. Protector Buláshckt watched them storm up the hill unopposed.

“Silvítya! The enemy!”

The Red Moon troops tore loose a beam to use as a battering ram and moved it to the door of the keep. Protector Buláshckt expertly positioned himself and took aim, while Silvítya struggled to arm the second crossbow. As they got ready to bash the door, their commander screamed and fell, grabbing at an crossbow bolt piercing his shoulder. Protector Buláshckt took the loaded weapon from his assistant’s hands and handed her the used one. He took aim as Silvítya loaded a second bolt. The men looked around as another bolt pierced a man’s neck. Then they saw him…a smartly dressed Danubian soldier shooting at them from a narrow window.

The men fired a volley at the tower as Silvítya’s companions screamed in terror. He handed her the used crossbow and took the loaded one. She frantically armed the empty one while he positioned himself and took aim. Another man fell and another volley was fired at the castle keep. Rounds poured through the window, tearing up the expensive tapestries and shattering the vases. An oil lamp fell and fire spread across the floor. Silvítya screamed at the other women:

“Put that out, you dishonored cowards! Grab a tapestry and put it on the fire, now!”

As her companions tried to deal with the fire, Silvítya grabbed the longbow and handed it to Protector Buláshckt, to allow herself time to arm both crossbows. There was another scream, some shouts, and another volley of lead pouring through the windows. The men again tried battering the door, but Protector Buláshckt fired yet more arrows and another invader fell, seriously wounded. The men returned fire, and again Silvítya’s companions screamed in terror. In quick succession Protector Buláshckt grabbed and fired both crossbows. Suddenly there was a lot more musket fire and screaming. Silvítya poked her head up to see the men savagely fighting against Danubian soldiers. Protector Buláshckt re-aimed the long bow and fired again at the invaders. Silvítya had both crossbows ready, which allowed the guard to fire two more powerful shots into the compressed and panicked hoard at the door. Protector Buláshckt realized that the tower no longer was in danger, but he was in an excellent spot to assist the Danubian soldiers trying to clear the castle entrance. He screamed:

“Doc-Doc Danube!”


So…the last of the hunters became the hunted. Protector Buláshckt fired several more times at men who appeared not to be wounded, as the soldiers below finished them with musket shots, and then bayonets.

When the Danubian troops opened the door and let out the Royal Guard and the women, Silvítya had a chance to see her companion’s grisly handiwork. Twenty eight of the dead enemy infantrymen had arrows or crossbow bolts sticking out of their corpses. She tried not to look at the faces of the dead men as the Duke’s soldiers cheered Protector Buláshckt’ bravery and marksmanship.

* * *

The sun was low in the horizon and the battle was mostly over. Half of the city was burning, but the other half, so far, had been spared. The Danubians did not have any time to rest, however. The Grand Duke emphasized that no enemy who had entered the city could be allowed to escape, because the next part of his war plan entailed yet more deception. So, throughout the night the Duke’s troops searched through the fallen Army of the Red Moon troops and bayoneted the injured survivors. At sunset the city echoed with the moans of thousands of wounded Red Moon troops: by sunrise the city was totally silent. It was a night of brutality, the result of orders that no prisoners were to be taken.

The men were exhausted, but the following day their frenetic leader kept them busy. They were ordered to collect as many weapons as possible and haul all of the dead enemy soldiers that had not been burnt, nearly 15,000 corpses in all, to the city’s main plaza. The sight of so many corpses, most of them horribly mutilated, was a sight that sickened almost everyone present and would haunt dreams for many years to come. The Grand Duke, seemingly unmoved by the sight of so much death, spent the day shouting orders and listening to reports coming in from his scouts.

* * *

It turned out that the siege and massacre was only the first half of what would be a two-part battle. There was another large contingent of Red Moon Army troops that had crossed the border and was only about a day’s journey away. There were about 4,000, but they were elite cavalry, the best troops of the House of Moon. Even though the cavalry unit was much smaller than the invasion force the Danubians had just defeated, the Grand Duke did not think his men could win against them in a pitched battle. So…he would attempt to repeat the trap within the walls of Hórkustk Ris, and once again turn the entire city into a kill-zone. To accomplish that, the Danubians would have to lure the cavalry unit, or at least a large part of it, into the ruins of Hórkustk Ris.

The Grand Duke ordered the enemy’s flags raised around the city. He ordered his men to strip the dead invaders of any Red Moon uniforms that were salvageable and to put them on. He ordered hundreds of the enemy dead to be dressed in Danubian uniforms and for his men to shave the corpses’ heads to make them look more like the Duchy's soldiers. Once the bodies were ready, the Danubian ruler ordered half of the disguised corpses to be taken outside and scattered around the gates, and for the other half to be hauled up the remains of the city walls.

Among the items retrieved from the corpses lying in the burnt section of the city were large hooks. The devices were a trademark of the House of Moon: their commanders usually ordered captured opponents to be impaled on the hooks and left to die an agonizing death. The Grand Duke examined one of the hooks, which, had the Danubians lost the fight, would have been used to hang a Danubian soldier or officer. Instead, they would become an important part of the deception during the next battle. For the rest of the day the Danubians struggled to hoist corpses dressed in Danubian tunics and hang them from the city wall.

By sunset, the ruse was completed. Anyone from the outside would have guessed that Hórkustk Ris had been taken by the Red Moon Army and that the Danubians had suffered a devastating defeat. The walls were lined with hanging corpses dressed in Danubian clothing, the ground outside the city was littered with yet more corpses in Danubian tunics, and everyone still alive was dressed in uniforms of the invaders. Red Moon flags and banners decorated the entrances and walls.

* * *

Silvítya and her companions did not have time to contemplate what was going on in the city plaza and along the walls. Instead, they were assisting the Danubian medics, who had set up a field hospital in the ruins of the cathedral. More than a hundred wounded Danubian soldiers lay in that church, resting in beds that had been pilfered from the remaining houses. Although there was not much she could do for head wounds and abdominal injuries, Silvítya was able to assist anyone who had a broken limb. She also knew how to sew up some open wounds. However, Silvítya knew that the majority of the men in the room were going to die. She concentrated on the ones she felt she could save and tried to ignore the desperate pleas of the injured she would not be assisting.

She spent two days working non-stop, shouting at her fellow concubines and military wives to hold down patients while she operated and to keep her supplied with vodka to calm the injured and to sterilize her instruments and open cuts. The other women were in awe of her. She seemed totally in control. The military medics left the concubine and her assistants alone as soon as they realized the woman knew what she was doing.

* * *

Because the eastern side of the city was nothing more than smoldering ruins, the Duke planned to shift the next battle to the city’s western district. The trick would be to lure the cavalry unit in and then massacre them. The Duke’s men set up the same gunpowder traps that had worked so well two days before, plus a series of traps specifically designed for horses. The cannon arsenal was considerably enhanced when some of the siege cannons were brought into the city and deployed. However, as part of the ruse, the majority of the cannons were left outside the city and set up to appear that they were ready to be moved to the next phase of the Red Moon Army’s campaign.

The next part of the Grand Duke’s plan involved actually convincing the enemy cavalry unit to come into the city through the west gate and cross into the new kill zone. The Duke would leave the city with a squad of his own cavalrymen and contact the enemy group. The men were dressed in Red Moon uniforms, but they still had to cover their shaved heads. The Duke was ready; among the items he had transported to Hórkustk Ris were several boxes of wigs. With their new long hair, the Danubian horsemen looked totally different. The Duke turned the unit’s leadership over to a man who was fluent in the language used by the House of Moon’s subjects.

Silvítya did not see the Grand Duke leave, because she was still working with the wounded in the cathedral. While most of the Danubians were still setting up for the second battle, the wagon handlers entered the church to move the injured to a safer location in the castle. They only moved the men who had been operated on. There was no point in trying to move the ones who were dying.

As night fell and the last of the salvageable men had been evacuated, Silvítya looked around at the broken windows and smashed roof of what was once a very nice church. She sadly contemplated the horror of all those dying men who remained. Outside, the city was burning and stank of thousands of rotting enemy corpses. If the Duke’s plan worked, there would be another several thousand corpses added, and if the plan did not work, the Danubians would all die.

Silvítya was beyond exhausted. She had seen plenty of death and misery before, but the worst of her past experiences were nothing compared to this. She took a drink from a blood-covered bottle of vodka. She looked up at a hole in the church roof. Sure enough, the owl, that owl, was there. The bright yellows eyes glared at her through the dimly lit ruins.

“Profane One, why? Why are you following me? I’m not worth it! I’m really not worth following! I’m nobody! Why can’t you follow someone more important?”

I follow you because it is my pleasure. Pity yourself, if you wish, because there is nothing you can do about it.

Silvítya’s consciousness returned to the Realm of the Living. She was trembling and gasping for breath. Her companions were staring at her. She said nothing. The matter was between her and the Destroyer. She took another drink, passed the bottle to one of the military wives, and ordered the women to follow her to the castle.

* * *

The Grand Duke, the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, rode inconspicuously among his horsemen, having turned over the leadership to a man with more cavalry experience, and more importantly, one who could speak the enemy’s language without an accent. His heart pounded and sweat formed under his wig as the squad of Danubians approached the much larger column of Red Moon cavalry. The Grand Duke had good reason to be worried, because his tiny group was approaching some of the best-trained and best equipped cavalry in all of central Europe. The men were the elite of the Kingdom of the Moon, attacking and killing under the nickname “The Beautiful Savages”. They had never suffered a significant defeat.

Without any hesitation, the Duke’s appointed leader rode up to the Red Moon cavalry: “HAIL! HAIL! Wonderful news, Your Excellency! We’ve taken Hórkustk Ris!”

The enemy troops started cheering, even though they had no doubt the Danubian city would fall the moment it was attacked. The disguised squad leader handed over several Danubian flags and a city banner as proof the place really was under the control of the Red Moon Army.

“Come celebrate with us! The city’s castle is full of wine! And vodka! And we’ve taken a lot of the women! Then we’ll go to Danubia and hunt!”

The enemy commander thought about the invitation. He wished his men had not heard the part about the wine, vodka, and captive Danubian women. They’d want to celebrate, drink, and enjoy the female prisoners, which would entail a wasted day. Still, the cavalry commander was curious to see the fallen Danubian city and what condition the victorious Red Moon Army was in. It seemed that Hórkustk Ris had been an easy affair. While Danúbikt Móskt would certainly be a more difficult target, it would make sense to put it under siege as quickly as possible, while the Danubians were still trying to recover from their most recent defeat.

The commander decided to send the captured flags south to his Lord with the message that Hórkustk Ris had fallen and the road to Danúbikt Móskt was clear. Meanwhile, he would take his force to the conquered city to see for himself what actually happened. Then he would spend the next few days clearing the countryside while waiting for the final order to proceed northward.

As they rode towards their deaths, the Red Moon elite cavalry looked totally impressive. They were a proud and feared force of vicious fighting men, riding powerful specially-bred black horses and carrying an array of specialized muskets and lances. Throughout its existence the unit had killed tens of thousands of infantrymen and annihilated the cavalry units of several other nations. The unit’s reputation was as important as its fighting skill: half the each battle already was won when the opposing men trembled at the sight of the infamous black horses and banners.

The Grand Duke and his men nervously rode with the huge contingent of enemies following close behind. Yes, he was scared, but he also was eagerly anticipating the upcoming ruse and impending battle. If his men could vanquish and break this unit, the devastating news of its defeat undoubtedly would break the spirit of the House of the Red Moon and hopefully force an end to their plans to usurp Danubian territory.

When the Red Moon commander saw the condition of the city, he was surprised at the extent of the damage to the walls and what he could see of the destruction inside. It appeared the city had been harder to conquer than the Lord of Red Moon had anticipated. Still, there was no doubt it had fallen. Danubian corpses littered the ground and dead Duchy soldiers decorated the walls. The black banners and uniformed men standing at the gate offered assurance of a warm welcome.

On a moment’s inspiration, the Duke’s appointed leader shouted:

“My Lord! We are honored to have you among us! We would be honored to see you come in with a gallop!”

“You heard him, men! Let’s charge this city! Let’s show those land-walkers how real fighters bring the Lord’s greetings!”

The Duke’s unit charged the open gate, cheering with their leader as he yelled: “Hail-Hail! The Lord’s cavalry is entering!”

As the disguised Danubians along the wall cheered them on, the Duke’s squad galloped as fast as they could through the gate and through the main street leading to the central plaza. They had to clear the kill zone before the mines, cannons, and muskets opened up on the enemy. The Duke’s men sped past a battery of cannons, just as the crews were lighting the fuses. Too late, the Red Moon cavalrymen in the vanguard realized what was about to happen.


The avenue between the western gate and the city plaza exploded with noise. Danubian sharpshooters fired volley after volley at the enclosed horsemen. The horses panicked and screamed, throwing many of their riders. Many of the Red Moon horsemen tried to escape along the side streets, only to run into the squads of musketeers and traps the Danubians had set up for their horses. The only Red Moon troops to survive the initial assault were the ones who dismounted and fought the Danubians hand to hand.

About a third of the Red Moon cavalrymen were still outside the city when the bombs and muskets that wiped out their comrades went off. Danubian archers and musketeers positioned on the walls and in the gatehouses fired viciously at the startled enemy, while the Danubian cavalry emerged from its hiding place and charged them from the outside. Outside the city there was a real battle between two sides that were evenly matched. However, the Danubians had the advantage of receiving cover fire from the walls. After taking heavy initial casualties, the Duke’s horsemen gained the upper hand. For the first time in its existence, the elite Red Moon cavalry unit was about to suffer a devastating defeat.

In the previous battle the Red Moon soldiers had set the city’s houses on fire, but during the second battle, it was the Duke’s soldiers who started the blazes. The surviving Red Moon cavalrymen and their horses found themselves surrounded by fire. They were unable to push forward because of the pile of corpses left created by the Danubian cannon crews blocking their path. They couldn’t go out the gate, because the Danubian cavalry was blocking that exit. They couldn’t escape along the side streets because squads of musketeers and archers blocked those routes. When several burning houses fell into the packed avenue, all hope of escape ended and the ambush turned into another massacre.

* * *

The Grand Duke had the foresight to order his men to evacuate the ruins of Hórkustk Ris as soon as the battle was over. The place already stunk horribly from the corpses of the first round of fighting, and now the west side of the city had not only 4,000 additional human bodies, but an equal number of dead horses. There was no way to remove all that rotting flesh from the city, even had the Duke’s army been at full strength, which they were not. There were more injuries to attend to and the men were totally exhausted from having gone three days with almost no sleep. They needed to get away from Hórkustk Ris, rest and re-group, and above all eat, before the Grand Duke could make his next move against the enemy.

Still, the Grand Duke and his troops were in very high spirits. They had not just defeated, but exterminated, a much larger and better equipped force. After listening to additional reports from his scouts, the Danubian Duke understood that the Red Moon Army had no other significant contingent of soldiers north of the border. However, there were numerous enemy garrisons that still had to be dealt with. There would be more fighting, and it would be best to finish off the garrisons quickly, before news of the massacre in Hórkustk Ris got out.

The Danubian Army set up a new headquarters in a large village after chasing out the inhabitants. The injured were moved and the Duke’s medics set up a new field hospital. Silvítya and her companions were forced to attend to a new group of wounded, but at least now the infernal stench of rotting corpses was not a concern.

Meanwhile, the Grand Duke’s commanders rounded up several hundred foreign villagers and herded them back to Hórkustk Ris. The wrecked city was still full of weapons and supplies that had to be taken out. The Duke was worried about cholera and other diseases affecting his soldiers and Danubian civilians, but the villagers were expendable. Gagging and trying to cover their faces against the horrific stench of the corpses, the wretched prisoners searched the ruins for weapons and anything else the Danubians could use to continue their campaign. They hauled out the cannons that the Danubians had used to kill the Red Moon cavalry and brought out hundreds of muskets, saddles, horseshoes, and travel packs. They also took down the Red Moon Army’s impalement hooks, which the Danubians carried around to justify the treatment of their captives.

The clean-up of Hórkustk Ris started with the simple removal of useable items, but then the Grand Duke decided to force his captives to haul out and bury the rotting enemy corpses. The conditions among the ruins were horrible and most of the prisoners did not last long. Silvítya watched with dismay as the Duke’s men herded group after group of enslaved villagers towards the ruins of Hórkustk Ris. Perhaps those people were foreigners who had usurped the Duchy’s land and destroyed its southern forest, but they also were people very much like Silvítya’s own family. She couldn’t see them as the enemy; she could only see them as fellow peasants.

All nations have selective memories. The Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia is no exception. The nation celebrated the Grand Duke’s risky campaign and hard fought victory at Hórkustk Ris, but chose to forget what happened afterwards. The Duke’s soldiers also chose to forget. In the years following the war they would spend hours describing, in gory detail, the valiant fighting in the streets against a much larger army to their children and grandchildren. However there would be no mention of shooting a captive cholera-stricken foreign villager struggling to obey an order to drag a rotting corpse out of some ruins three weeks later.

Historian's Note: Looking at the former site of Hórkustk Ris today, it is hard to imagine that the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia’s fourth largest city was once located there. Apart from the cathedral’s walls, very little remains of the city’s ruins. Even most of the foundations of the city wall are missing. The castle survived the battle intact, as did some houses located in the district between the castle and the partially ruined church. However, the stench of corpses and the unsanitary conditions within the walls made re-settlement impossible between 1754 and 1756. During that two-year period the remaining buildings fell into disrepair. By 1756 Hórkustk Ris had become a rock quarry for nearby villages. Danubian civilians forced to re-settle in the area visited the ruins to collect stones and bricks. The Grand Duke sent in Royal Guards, not to protect the city, but to make sure that no man or armed group would try to charge villagers for taking out building supplies. Most of the houses had been completely dismantled by 1770. The final structures were the remains of the cathedral, the castle, and the city wall. The Grand Duke considered re-building the castle to house a garrison, but decided the location was too far north to be useful for guarding the border. To prevent the castle from being used by anyone else, he allowed settlers to tear down the structure on the condition they hauled away the stones. Most of the larger blocks remaining from the city wall were carted off to build two bridges during the 1780s. The cathedral’s ruins were never looted, so the church site remains as a silent reminder of Hórkustk Ris and its unhappy fate .

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

End of part 5

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