The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 7

Chapter Twenty-One – The Slave Owner

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

As the Buláshckt family and Silvítya were fleeing south, the Grand Duke spent several days surveying the ruins of the capital and listening to reports about the evacuation. The fire had gone as planned, leaving the entire area within the city walls completely cleaned out. The only structures left standing were the Great Temple and a few nearby ancient buildings, the main cathedral and two other churches built by the Roman Church during the 1300s, and a few stone armory buildings near the castle. However, not everything had gone perfectly and unfortunately there had been some casualties. As the day progressed, Royal Guards and workers searching the smoldering ruins found several burnt corpses.

The Guards had no way of knowing who the bodies belonged to, with a notable exception. The captain of the detachment guarding the castle saw that Protector Alexándrekt Buláshckt was missing. He knew Protector Buláshckt had a nice house located within the city walls and decided to check its ruins. The men made the ghastly discovery that Alexándrekt Buláshckt and his entire family had perished inside their house. It seemed strange that someone as smart as Protector Buláshckt would not have made it out of the fire, but the guards speculated that his wife must have stayed in the house waiting for him and by the time he realized where his family was, the fire cornered everyone in the residence and they perished.

The Grand Duke took the news of Alexándrekt Buláshckt’s death stoically, but inwardly he was very upset. He lost one of his best guards, but even worse was the loss of one of his oldest daughters. It was regrettable that the girl was only a year away from being ready to be taken into the castle: she would have had her hair braided in just six years and be ready to marry off. The Grand Duke looked at the charred bodies, hoping his offspring was not among them. Unfortunately there was a corpse of a nine-year-old girl that corresponded with the daughter, so she had indeed been lost. That was most unlucky. The ruler ordered the bodies to be taken to the military cemetery and buried with honors. A Prophet from the Great Temple would lead the funeral, which was a privilege usually reserved for ministers and nobility.

When the Grand Duke returned to the castle two days later, there was more bad news waiting for him. His favorite concubine Silvítya was missing. No one had a clue what happened to her. The ruler checked her sleeping chamber, only to discover she had left behind her jewelry.

The other women were extremely worried of course, and seemed to suspect that the ruler himself had been responsible for her disappearance. The Grand Duke said nothing, figuring it would be best to let the concubines speculate about their spokeswoman and wonder what she had done to displease him. The Grand Duke never directly asked anyone what happened to Servant Silvítya. If the other concubines were scared that he had killed her, then it was unlikely they had anything to do with her absence. The Royal Guards and the matrons also took it for granted Silvítya had somehow run afoul of the Sovereign’s temper and that he was responsible for her death. If he started asking a bunch of questions, it would be apparent that she instead had run off, and it would look like he had lost control of one of his servants and lose honor. So, it was better to let everyone think he had secretly executed her. Besides, even if she had run off, it was likely she perished in the fire, given that she would have had to cross the entire city to reach a gate. If that was what happened, searching for her body would be futile. It would be one of several severely charred corpses found in the ashes and would never be identified.

So, the disappearance of Servant Silvítya remained a mystery for the Grand Duke. Why would she leave the safety of the castle? How did she get out? Did she go looking for him? Was she trying to find Protector Buláshckt? Was there someone else she was trying to find? Well… whatever happened, it was best to stay quiet and use Silvítya as a “lesson” for the other concubines. From now on whenever they did anything that even hinted at irritating him, the ruler commented: “You know… it is most unfortunate what happened to Servant Silvítya. Hers is a fate you wouldn’t wish on anyone, is it not? But I trust you understand your Path in Life better than she understood hers.”

As for the ruler himself, he was troubled by the vanishing of his favorite woman, but life had taught him to hide his emotions, even from himself. Love always led to tragedy and the loss of Servant Silvítya was just one example out of many why it was best to avoid becoming too emotionally attached to anyone. The Grand Duke pondered that Servant Silvítya could just as easily have betrayed him as simply disappearing and that he had made himself ridiculously vulnerable. Well, he'd have to ensure that never happened again. He'd replace the girl with another "favorite", console himself by indulging with the remaining concubines, and move ahead with his plans for the Duchy.

The speculation about Servant Silvítya’s fate showed up in the writings of several former concubines and castle staff-members. A popular poet wrote a fanciful story claiming that Silvítya was not killed by the Grand Duke at all, but instead fled the castle to escape the Destroyer. As she ran through the city, the “Profane One” pursued her and spread fire to prevent her from turning back. Thus, the “Girl with No Name” caused the Destroyer to pass through Danúbikt Móskt and was indirectly responsible for the city’s subsequent burning. A song-writer took the poet’s Destroyer idea and incorporated both the execution rumor and the story from Rika Héckt-nemát; that the Girl with No Name had called out to Beelzebub the Destroyer to save her from a second death sentence. Yes, she was indeed spared, but at the cost of another city, the Danubian capital.

Several other poets and song-writers added their variations to the story and in doing so unwittingly served the interests of both Silvítya and the Grand Duke. The truth about the Great Fire of 1755 lay buried under increasingly thick layers of elaborate myth and fanciful tales.

* * *

The former Royal Guard and the former Royal concubine entered the forest and spent the late afternoon walking through dense old-growth trees. They were still ahead of most of the other refugees and the road was mostly clear. However, they had lost precious time trying to find the parents of the children they rescued, so the guard insisted on walking as quickly as possible. As they moved along the road, Alexándrekt periodically whistled what sounded like a strange bird-call. He listened, waited several minutes, and whistled again. Finally his efforts were rewarded with a response. He changed the whistle, as did his respondent. He oriented himself through several more exchanges and led Silvítya away from the road. They arrived at a clearing, where a wagon and three horses were partly concealed by trees. An attractive woman dressed in a caravan outfit like Silvítya’s and a 12-year old boy stood guard with crossbows over the campsite and three children. The children, a girl and two young boys, huddled together under the wagon. Alexándrekt introduced Silvítya to his wife, Stepkakta, and a nephew, Nowáckt.

They moved out immediately and returned to the main road, even though it was close to sunset. The boy watched the back of the wagon while the former guard rode his horse in front. Alexándrekt’s wife took the reins of the wagon team and followed her husband’s order that she teach Silvítya how to drive. The three children, still bewildered from being taken out of their comfortable home, sat quietly with their older cousin in the back. After sunset the trip continued. Alexándrekt and Nowáckt walked up front, each carrying a crossbow. Silvítya and Alexándrekt’s wife had longbows within their reach.

Silvítya was dead tired, given that she had not slept at all for two days, but she forced herself to conform to the rigid military-style discipline of her traveling companions. It was obvious that Alexándrekt had trained both Stepkakta and Nowáckt in the use of weapons and army survival skills. The boy in particular behaved as any ordinary Danubian soldier would behave: he carried his crossbow with ease and confidence.

The group traveled non-stop through the night and the following morning. They stopped midday, but only because Alexándrekt was monitoring the horses and calculated they needed to rest due to the heat. The group found a stream where the animals could drink and where everyone could bathe. Alexándrekt and the boys bathed separately from the women. The males and the girl went to sleep immediately, while the women stood watch over the camp.

During the watch Stepkakta braided Silvítya’s hair. Silvítya was elated when she looked into the water and saw her reflection. Finally, after two years, her hair was braided and her public honor as a woman was restored. Now that she looked like any other decently-attired Danubian woman, she truly felt she had escaped the clutches of the Grand Duke.

After the afternoon meal Silvítya slept on a blanket under the wagon. It was her first opportunity to sleep in three days, and her first opportunity to sleep as a free woman in two years.

Throughout the trip Silvítya would provide an important contribution to the group whenever they were passing through a wooded area. In spite of her past as a university student and a concubine, she was not a spoiled city girl who would be a burden on the others. She had skills that she had learned when living in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement: she knew secrets of food gathering in the forest and could instantly spot and identify anything that was edible. While Stepkakta set up a fire and prepared a meal, Silvítya scoured the woods for food. The first time she went foraging, Stepkakta was just starting to grumble about Silvítya’s absence when her companion returned with a sack containing a banquet of mushrooms, roots, herbs, and berries.

The group left the main road leading to the ruins of Hórkustk Ris shortly before the forest ended. They followed a road that was little more than a rough trail westward towards the East Danube River. When they approached the shore, they turned south to travel along the water’s edge. Fine flat beaches, exposed because of the low water-level during a drought year, made the trip both easy and pleasant. An unbroken line of cliffs, which comprised the Duchy’s western border, extended both upstream and downstream along the opposite side of the river.

At night the team moved in silence, but during the day there was time for conversation. Silvítya and Alexándrekt’s wife exchanged stories about their experiences as concubines and compared observations about how the ruler had changed over the past nine years. Stepkakta had been one of his very first concubines, picked from a village when he was still just the heir to the throne. The young Prince saw her drawing water from a well as he was passing through with his hunting party and took a liking to her. Like Silvítya, Stepkakta entered the sovereign’s service as a peasant and exited with the manners and skills of an upper-class woman. As the Crown Prince said at the time: “it’s always interesting to catch a crow and turn her into a dove.”

Silvítya exclaimed, “Then that explains it; there’s a tapestry above the Duke’s throne, he’s got a tapestry that shows a crow sitting in a cage and a dove sitting on top.”

“Yes. The tapestry must have been made after my time, but that’s what it would mean. His Majesty has many reasons for keeping concubines, but one of them is to use us to humble the nobility. He wishes to prove that noble families are not inherently superior to average citizens. Anyone can be taught to act like a noble, and therefore nobles have no special rights, and therefore, like everyone else, they must submit to the Royal House. By having us act as ladies of class, he is sending his rivals a political message.”

The Buláshckt group proceeded along the river for several days, passing to the south of Hórkustk Ris and the squads of Royal Guards stationed there to receive refugees and push them further south. Alexándrekt planned to go around the ruined city to the west, then turn directly east and follow a series of rough roads southeast. He had seen some properties close to the southern border that interested him, but the family would have to move quickly to ensure they occupied the land before any other Danubians arrived to stake a claim.

The Buláshckt family would have an enormous advantage of having the tools, horses, and cooking utensils needed to set up a household upon arriving at their destination. They also had blank letters from the Grand Duke granting them rights to the property they would be taking. Stepkakta and Silvítya practiced forging signatures and finally decided that Silvítya should be the one to attempt to forge the names. She signed several officials’ names and made the documents look authentic.

One of the letters would be for Silvítya. Alexándrekt had taken for granted the assumption she would be content owning and farming a small plot of land for the rest of her life. The property title planted doubts in Silvítya’s thoughts about what she wanted for her future. She could indeed operate a farm, but there was no way living off a plot of land appealed to her. Maybe... maybe if she had a partner or a family she could be a farmer, but to do it alone?

The family turned away from the river and crossed a region that had been a war-zone the previous year. The area already was occupied by recently-arrived Danubian settlers, so signs of both destruction and recovery were everywhere. Alexándrekt talked in detail about the skirmishes between the Royal Guards and garrisons of the Lord of the Red Moon’s men as they passed through villages and manors. They arrived at the same town where Mirjana’s captors had sold her relatives. The slave market was still active, selling off captured refugees from the Kingdom of the Moon. All of the slaves were women or girls, all of them were collared and naked.

Silvítya’s illusions about Alexándrekt suffered a severe blow when she watched him purchase four slaves. He bought two middle-aged women to work in the fields, a younger one to help his wife in the household, and a girl who would be the personal servant of Nowáckt. Silvítya was horrified when she saw the naked foreigners kneeling next to the wagon. Alexándrekt had talked incessantly about his freedom, his step-daughter’s freedom, and Silvítya’s freedom, but had no qualms about keeping foreign women as slaves.

Silvítya was most troubled by the girl that had been given to Nowáckt. The boy was 12 and his new servant was only slightly younger. He would shave his head in a few years and would want what any teenaged boy would want. Silvítya even overheard Alexándrekt discussing the purchase with Stepkakta: “…yes, I know she was expensive, but I need to keep that boy out of trouble. We’ll have enough worries as it is, so I don’t want him wandering off looking for adventures.”

* * *

A group of displaced families from the capital joined Alexándrekt as his family and his slaves departed eastward. They all had titles to landholdings, but so far every place they had seen already had occupants. Alexándrekt explained that the best remaining property would be along the southern border. There were several abandoned villages within sight of the Kingdom of the Moon. If the others joined the Buláshckt group, Alexándrekt would teach the men how to fight so they could defend both the Duchy and their new land. The men agreed, elected Alexándrekt their mayor, and a large column of families proceeded towards the border. Originally there were 13 families, but by the end of the journey they had been joined by 15 more.

Three days later the group arrived at a village containing some refugees from the Kingdom of the Moon. The Danubians chased out the foreigners and quickly set up their new town. Alexándrekt didn’t bother to find out if the empty settlement had a previous Danubian name; he simply called it Malénkta-Gordnáckta because it was located next to a small hill with a dilapidated watchtower at its summit.

The Buláshckts, along with the four slaves and Silvítya, established their household in Malénkta-Gordnáckta’s nicest residence. Alexándrekt left his wife, the three children, and the two younger slaves in the town, but took his nephew, the two older slaves, and Silvítya to establish ownership of a large plot of farmland outside the village. Forested hills lay immediately to the east of the property, and a small river that was recognized as the border between the Kingdom of the Moon and the Duchy formed a small portion of the boundary to the south. It was a risky location, but someone would have to live along the border and stake out the land for the Duchy. 'I suppose a former Royal Guard is as good a man for that duty as any,' Silvítya thought to herself.

Alexándrekt handed a switch to his companion and told her to have the slaves start clearing one of the fields. Meanwhile, he would go with several of the men to divide up the rest of the land around Malénkta-Gordnáckta. Later he would have to organize some hunting expeditions in the woods. The fields had been abandoned over the previous year and there was very little food in the area. The situation would improve after the next year’s harvest, but until then the new residents of Malénkta-Gordnáckta would have to live by hunting and gathering.

As she stood in the field, holding her switch and watching the two wretched naked women sweat and struggle with their task, Silvítya felt despair sweep over her. 'What am I doing, watching over another person’s slaves? Why did the Ancients lead me here, to the edge of the Duchy, to this abandoned location? Is this truly my Path in Life? Is this why I escaped the capital and the Grand Duke? What am I doing, just standing alone in a field?'

* * *

Alexándrekt’s training in the Danubian military manifested itself in every detail of his behavior as he organized his new community. He assessed each man under his command to determine his strongest skills or talents and made sure each of his subordinates was doing his best to further the interests of Malénkta-Gordnáckta. By the end of September the town had a fully operational blacksmith’s shop, a glass-blower, a cobbler, and a weaver. There was a shortage of livestock, but a group of teenagers snuck across the border, raided a farm, and brought back some live chickens and a pair of sheep. That was hardly enough for village of 300 people, but at least it was a start.

Alexándrekt knew that Silvítya had training from the Cult of the Ancients for living and foraging in the woods, so he employed her to lead gathering expeditions into the nearby hills. Both he and Stepkakta had been very impressed with her talent for finding anything edible during the first days of their journey, so it was logical to place former Follower in charge of foraging expeditions. The commander ordered each family to send at least one woman or girl to the plaza with bags and baskets, with the understanding they were to follow Silvítya into the hills and do exactly what she told them to do. Anyone failing to follow her instructions would face a public switching in the plaza upon returning. The severe command was necessary because most of the women were guild wives or field workers that had no experience collecting food in the forest. As long as the women were accompanying Silvítya, they would be under her command, no questions asked.

Silvítya was not particularly religious when she was in a “civilized” environment, but when she was in a natural setting she did feel the presence of the Ancients. Her religion might no longer have formally existed, but the spirituality she had learned with the Cult stayed with her and influenced her view of the world. Therefore, as she led others into the woods, she insisted on maintaining the practices of the Old World. She shocked her companions by stripping and ordering the others to undress as well. The oldest woman in the group would stand watch over the dresses, but the others would show respect to the Realm of Nature by entering the forest as the Great Spirits had created them.

Noting the reluctance of her companions, she snapped, “If you want your families to eat, they will only do so with the blessing of the Ancients. The Ancients will only give you their blessing if you respect the ways of the Old World. That’s the way your Paths in Life will be whenever you are with me. I am a Follower of the Ancients, I am a woman of the Old World, and you will obey, just as I obey the Ancients. If you disobey me, the wrath of the Ancients awaits you in the woods, and the switch awaits you in the Plaza.”

So the naked ex-concubine led her equally naked companions through the forested hills, gathering a multitude of roots, berries, mushrooms, herbs, and fungi. The women were surprised by how many items previously unknown to them could be gathered and prepared. Silvítya led the women to various streams to catch fish and collect freshwater mussels. The streams offered a respite from the constant wandering when the guide and her companions relaxed along the shore and swam in the cold water. The women became used to traversing the hills in the nude and eventually started to enjoy it. The cool breezes felt comfortable on their uncovered skin and it was nice to not worry about damaging or soiling clothing that was both expensive and difficult to replace.

The trips to the woods offered a welcome break from Mayor Alexándrekt Buláshckt’s increasingly rigid militaristic rule over Malénkta-Gordnáckta. He insisted that all men and boys engage in constantly practicing both fencing and archery. The males practiced for war as much as they worked their fields, while the women wore themselves out foraging and preserving food for the grim winter that lay ahead.

As the weather started to become colder, the foraging expeditions into the mountains ended, along with Silvítya’s temporary authority over Malénkta-Gordnáckta’s other women. She had taught her companions what she knew about finding unusual food items and innovative methods of preparing meals, but now that her knowledge had been dispensed, the other women saw no need to continue following the orders of someone who looked no older than 17. Silvítya became known around the town as “the Cult girl” as the women increasingly resented her efforts to impose her beliefs on them. The other women dismissed her and her strange religion as soon as they no longer needed her. By the end of October their gratitude for what she had taught them was forgotten.

There were other changes in Malénkta-Gordnáckta that troubled Silvítya, especially in the house of her hosts. Stepkakta discovered she was pregnant in October and became even more ill-tempered than she had been over the summer. She was very unpleasant to be around, so Silvítya avoided her as much as possible. Nor did Silvítya approve of Stepkakta’s treatment of the house slave. On several occasions she had witnessed the mistress tie her servant to the kitchen table and give her severe switchings, while Nowáckt’s servant was forced to watch “to learn her place”.

Stepkakta never beat the younger girl, not because of her age, but because of her value. However, already there were numerous signs that Nowáckt was not going to treat her well. Throughout the fall and winter he and Alexándrekt’s step-daughter bullied his servant and forced her to do humiliating things. For example, at the end of October, Nowáckt and his cousin “punished” the girl by cutting off part of her hair and then forced her to look at herself in a mirror. When she cried at seeing her reflection, all four of the Buláshckt children ridiculed her.

Alexándrekt proved his talent as a soldier by training and organizing the town’s men into a competent platoon-sized militia within just two months. No group of soldiers from the Kingdom of the Moon could have entered Malénkta-Gordnáckta without sustaining casualties. However, the mayor knew the town’s preparation for combat remained totally inadequate. The men had a mis-matched collection of personal weapons, there was no extra iron, and the community only had six horses, of which four belonged to the Buláshckts. Adding to the mayor’s worries was the lack of salt, which was needed to preserve meat in an age when there was no refrigeration. For Malénkta-Gordnáckta to survive and prosper, the inhabitants would have to trade for the goods they needed, but unfortunately they had nothing to offer.

The town’s fortunes changed when a group of refugees from a manor immediately south of the border fled from a group of soldiers loyal to the Lord of the Blue Moon. The manor owner was loyal to the Lord of the Red Moon, so he and his family: women, children, and house servants included, were hung outside their house on the Kingdom’s infamous impalement hooks. The field workers did not stick around to see what was going to happen to them. Yes, they had heard that the Danubian Duchy no longer was a safe place, but they were panicked and had nowhere else to go. So, reluctantly they crossed the river and fled north.

Alexándrekt set up a trap for the refugees as soon as he found out they had crossed the border. The townsmen waited until the foreigners were moving between two hills. They were set up with crossbows on both sides of the road, while the mayor and five mounted companions charged the group from the front. The refugees scrambled up the hillsides, only to fall to the crossbows of the Danubians. The mayor had ordered only the foreign men to be killed, while as many of the women as possible were to be captured alive.

The townsfolk caught 36 women and girls. They herded their shivering, naked prisoners northward and sold them at the same market where Alexándrekt had bought his slaves several months before. The men triumphantly returned to their town with new horses, new crossbows, a pile of crossbow bolts and arrows, two muskets, gunpowder, and several barrels of salt. The town celebrated their good fortune as Alexándrekt trained several of his men to ride their new horses and Stepkakta distributed salt among the town’s women. Already there was talk of a new raiding expedition to capture more slaves and how much easier that would be now that more of the men had horses.

Silvítya felt sick. She couldn’t figure out if Alexándrekt had changed or if she never knew him in the first place. Instead of the thoughtful devoted family man she had seen in the castle, the Alexándrekt in front of her was a brutal raider and enslaver. Not only was he a slave owner, but he was killing refugees and actively catching and condemning women to a lifetime of servitude. Of course, everyone else totally adored him because he was doing everything necessary to ensure Malénkta-Gordnáckta’s security and prosperity. However, at what price? What kind of community was he creating? Certainly not one where Silvítya would want to live.

* * *

The grim autumn turned into an equally grim winter. The salt barrels and hunting expeditions ensured that Malénkta-Gordnáckta would not actually starve, but throughout the end of the year food would be in short supply. The men were gone most of the time, not only hunting animals but pursuing rumors about groups of refugees. During the bleak months of December and January they captured a total of 24 more foreign women and took them to the slave market. The additional trading netted some iron, crop seed, tools, and cave charcoal.

Additional families entered Malénkta-Gordnáckta and claimed ownership of the remaining parcels of vacant land. Silvítya decided to sell the title of her plot to one of the newcomers, given that she had no desire to farm or settle in the area. Hers was one of the last properties available, so she received three-and-a-half gold pieces, which was a good price for a plot that size. As soon as the weather became warm, she would go into the hills and continue with her travels. Everything about her neighbors disgusted her and she longed never to see any of them again.

Meanwhile, the vicious civil war to the south dragged on. Silvítya periodically climbed into the watchtower on the hilltop overlooking the border and talked to the sentry. Occasionally she could see plumes of smoke in the distance and knew some ghastly atrocity had just been committed by one of the warring factions. She thought about her odious neighbors and the senseless southern warlords. More than any other time in her life, she questioned the goodness of the cosmos and wondered whether people had ever done anything to deserve their place in the Realm of the Living.

“Where is the Creator? Where are the blessings from the Ancients? The only presence I ever feel is that of the Destroyer. I don’t feel anything else.”

* * *

Stepkakta’s fourth pregnancy turned out to be her most difficult. Her health had suffered from traveling and adjusting to a new environment, so by February she had to spend most of her time in bed. She was more unpleasant than ever as her shrill voice echoed throughout the mayor’s residence. However, that was good fortune for the house slave, given that the Mistress was too weak to administer any more whippings. Silvítya, who until that time had been little more than a family guest, took on many of the duties needed to run the household. By the late winter she no longer sympathized or cared about anyone in Alexándrekt Buláshckt’s family, but she did not want the children running amok and tormenting the servants.

As a condition for helping out, she insisted on taking control of the girl originally purchased for Nowáckt by telling Alexándrekt there was no way she could operate a household including a sick pregnant woman and four rowdy children with a single slave. She would have to bring the girl into the kitchen and teach her how to cook and perform other household duties. Silvítya was furious upon seeing the condition of Nowáckt’s servant. The young captive was a truly pathetic sight, with insults written on her body, her head partially shaved, her remaining hair dyed red and blue, and her expression traumatized by constant bullying.

It was fortunate that Alexándrekt had obtained a horse for his nephew, because over the winter the boy was absent most of the time, tasked to learn everything needed to become a mounted soldier. Nowáckt accompanied his uncle whenever the men went out, whether it was on a routine patrol or a slave-raiding expedition. The boy’s soul was becoming hardened and callous towards anyone weaker than himself, but the inhabitants of the household were spared from having to deal with him very much. The other children were still young enough to be intimidated by Silvítya, so she was able to establish order within a few days.

She learned the names of the two house slaves, Marla and Isauria. Up until that moment she had only known them as the “Kitchen Slave” and the “Young Slave”. The substitute house-mistress cut off Isauria’s ruined hair, evened the stubble on her scalp, and gave her a headscarf to hide what had been done to her by Alexándrekt’s step-daughter. Silvítya was thoroughly disgusted and promised herself that when she left town, she would somehow try to take the adolescent with her. Anyhow, at least Isauria was now under her control and for the time being would be spared any further bullying.

As much as she was disgusted by Malénkta-Gordnáckta’s reliance on slavery, Silvítya was impressed by how quickly Mayor Buláshckt had organized an undisciplined group of refugees and a collection of abandoned houses into a fully functioning community capable of feeding and defending itself. Over the late winter additional slave raids allowed the town to purchase a wagon-load of cheese and barley; another wagon full of beets, carrots, and potatoes; and several pregnant breed-sows. In the early spring the entire community turned out to plant the fields, including everyone in the Buláshckt household, with the exception of the still bed-ridden Stepkakta.

The planted fields and green hills reminded Silvítya that it was time to fulfill the promise she had made to herself and leave. She correctly assumed that had she simply asked for permission to depart and to take Isauria with her, the mayor would have denied the request. Silvítya was too valuable to the household and he would consider her trying to leave before his wife had her baby a dereliction of duty.

Silvítya prayed about her dilemma to the Ancients. The answer she received was to conduct a test of Alexándrekt’s character to see how loyal he truly was to his wife. If he passed the test of character, she would have to stay. If he failed the test, then she would be able to coerce him into letting her have everything she wanted.

Silvítya knew that Alexándrekt had a favorite spot in the hills immediately to the east of his estate. It was a rocky overlook that included a large flat stone upon which it was possible to sit, lie, set up a spyglass, or use as a firing position. There was a brook nearby with a small pool that was large enough for two people to fit comfortably and take a bath, or for a horse to take a drink. A horse could be tied near the water and still be within sight of the rock, so it was an ideal location for a military man to rest with his horse.

Silvítya returned to her old habit of searching the forest for edible items as soon as the weather was warm enough for her to run around the hills in the nude. She took advantage of the stone shelf as a location to offer up her prayers to the Ancients and as a place to spread out her mushrooms and herbs so they could dry in the sun. She knelt and prayed in archaic Danubian, hoping that eventually the Ancients would answer her prayers.

Alexándrekt spent several days observing the young Follower, fascinated by her naked figure as she prayed in the bright late spring sunshine. Yes, in the Grand Duke’s castle she had been constantly naked for two years, but that had been forced upon her. Now she was in her natural environment, willingly sharing herself and her body with the lost soul of the Old World. Hearing her singing and praying in the Old Language and surrendering herself to the Realm of Nature made her seem mysterious and sinister, but at the same time made her very sexy.

A week after he started observing her in his favorite spot, Alexándrekt approached Silvítya. Her skin was starting to tan and her sweat glistened in the warm sunshine. She remained on her knees as she silently looked back at him, waiting to see what he would do.

“You’re a strange girl, Silvítya. You’re different from anyone I’ve ever met. Different, and far more interesting.”

Silvítya remained on her knees, looking at the mayor, but still with no answer. Alexándrekt became nervous at her silence, but the sight of her was making him increasingly aroused. He had not had sex with his wife for over six months, so the girl in front of him looked sexier to him than ever. He badly wanted her and she was well-aware of what was going on in his head. Finally, still keeping her silence, she stood up and put out her hand.

She bent over the rocks in the submissive position as he caressed her body and struggled out of his clothing. It had been a long time for her as well, so at least she could enjoy what was about to happen before she set off her trap. She sighed as he massaged her bottom and ran his fingers between her legs. She became wet as she positioned herself and welcomed his hard penis into her eager body. He took his time with her… if nothing else at least he was a good lover. She abandoned herself to the moment and allowed herself to climax.

The couple swam in the pool and made love again. She lay on her back on a batch of clover as he pushed into her. He was rough and vigorous as he thrust, but a lot more considerate than the Grand Duke had been.

They made love in the same spot over the next several days. Eventually Silvítya worked him into the position she wanted as she got him to lie on his back and she straddled him. The mayor climaxed into her as she relived her old fantasy of being Lilith.

That night, Silvítya packed her bucket and put on her trader’s outfit. She served dinner and brought Alexándrekt a bottle of ale. Then she changed her entire demeanor. In a cold voice she ordered the children to leave the room and told the slaves to return to the kitchen. She placed her hands on the table and stared hard at the surprised mayor.

“You know, Alexándrekt, there have been only three men in my life for whom I’ve ever had any respect. One of those men was a farmer who taught me the importance of atonement. The second man was an Elder from my Cult who taught me about overcoming one’s fear. The third man I admired was you. I thought you had taught me about the importance of one’s family. However, I was wrong about you. I don’t know whether you changed or if I just didn’t know you, but either way, I don’t like what you’ve turned into. So, I’m leaving. I am taking my bucket and I’m walking out of this town.”

“Very well, if that’s how you feel, then go.”

Silvítya reached into her belt and pulled out her coin purse. She placed three gold coins and five silver coins on the table.

“What’s this?”

“Payment for Nowáckt’s slave Isauria. I’m taking her with me. I understand that you paid four gold pieces for her, but if you’ve noticed, your nephew and step-daughter reduced her value by ruining her hair. It’s a fair price that I’m offering. You wouldn’t receive three-and-a-half gold if you tried selling her at the market in her current condition.”

Alexándrekt smiled and pushed the money back, but Silvítya stepped away from the table.

“Don’t be a fool, Mayor Buláshckt. The Ancients are trying to protect you from scandal. You don’t think people in Malénkta-Gordnáckta aren’t talking about Nowáckt and the slave you gave him? The Ancients are giving you a path out of your predicament. They are giving you an opportunity to recoup most of your investment and put an end to your family’s disgrace. I take the girl off your hands, leave without saying anything, and we’ll be forgotten in a few days. Any other choice will fill your Path in Life with dishonor. If you don’t believe me, then pick up your sword, strike me down, and see what happens.”

Alexándrekt said nothing more, but he realized his companion was right. He had nothing to gain either by killing her or by refusing to sell Isauria. He saw the same cold determination in Silvítya that he had seen when she confronted the Grand Duke in Sumy Ris. She was offering him the chance to get rid of two problems simultaneously. So, he reached into his shirt to take a key off his necklace. He took the coins off the table and unlocked a sturdy metal box that was bolted to the wall. He tossed in the coins and took out a piece of parchment. It was Isauria’s ownership certificate. He crossed out his name and added a note stating the girl had been re-sold.

“What’s your name? Your real name? The one the Church called you when your hair was braided?”

“Danka. It doesn’t really matter, but that’s my name. I guess you can put my title on that paper as Peasant Danka, because that’s what I am.”

The mayor handed the paper to Danka. “Very well, Peasant Danka. Take your servant and get off my property.”

Danka went into the kitchen and called Isauria. The girl followed her, not yet understanding what had just happened. They stepped into the plaza and passed to the back side of the town’s church. Danka handed a trader’s outfit to Isauria and told her to put it on. She handed her bucket to the girl and they continued to a shed where Danka had been hiding a crossbow and some stolen bolts. She took the crossbow and satchel, along with a traveling backpack containing supplies and tools for living in the forest. Then she exited Malénkta-Gordnáckta to set off with her servant towards the hills. The travelers followed a path that led northeast, away from both the border and from the province of Hórkustk Ris.

They walked in silence in the darkness as the quiet girl struggled to keep up. Danka had not yet explained anything, but Isauria realized that she had been sold and her new mistress was taking her away from Malénkta-Gordnáckta. More importantly, she was being taken away from those horrid children who had spent the past eight months tormenting her. She was very happy at the thought of never seeing them again. She had no idea where her new mistress and her Path in Life would lead her, but just escaping from the Buláshckt children was good enough for the moment.

At daybreak Danka entered the woods and looked for a place to set up camp. She found a spot near a stream. Isauria was tired, but there would be no rest until the two travelers had gathered enough food to sustain them over the next couple of days. Danka taught her servant how to find berries and edible forest plants and how to prepare them. The weather was sunny, so she was able to use a magnifying lens to start a fire. The woman and her servant stripped off their clothing and waded into the stream so Danka could teach her ward how to catch fish.

As they ate, Danka looked at her purchase and wondered what to do with her. She had no desire to keep Isauria, but realized finding a safe place to leave her would be difficult. The girl’s cropped hair presented a problem because it made her look like a boy. It would take at least two years for it to grow back to a length that would be considered acceptable in Danubia for a young woman. In the meantime Danka would either have to keep Isauria in the woods or keep her head covered if they went into a settled area. She wished she could just take the girl to the border and let her go home, but there was no home for her to go to. Her village was burnt, her family was dead, and her country was being destroyed by conflict. The civil war and the ongoing atrocities were the main reason the enslaved foreign women in southern Danubia stayed put, even though most could have reached the border just by walking a few hours. Servitude was their reality in the Duchy, but rape and impalement hooks were the reality that awaited them to the south.

Danka thought that a logical place to leave Isauria might be with the Danubian Church. However, Isauria was an illiterate slave from the Kingdom of the Moon who barely spoke any Danubian. What use would she be to the Clergy? Especially with a shaved head?

There was the option of her former lover Káloyankt. There was no question he could take in the girl and probably would. If she could somehow make it to Sevérckt nad Gorádki and contact Káloyankt, that would be the best option for Isauria, but it would not be the best option for Danka. She still felt guilty about the way she treated him and was humiliated from having been a concubine for two years. She didn’t know how much her fellow cultists knew about her fate when she left the university and did not want to find out. Taking Isauria to Sevérckt nad Gorádki would have been the best alternative for safely disposing of her, but Danka couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Danka decided it was early enough in the year to put off making any decision concerning where she should go or what she should do with Isauria. So, she would simply take the girl further into the wild country and teach her everything necessary to live off the land. There would be some time to teach her to speak proper Danubian and how to read and write.

Danka looked around her. She felt the presence of the Old World, the forest as it had been when the Ancients decided to depart the Realm of the Living and leave humans to sort out their own fate. She wanted to believe the Ancients were all around her. Maybe it was time to take a break from the civilized world of the Christians and try to re-connect with the world that had preceded them. She had tried to teach her fellow women from Malénkta-Gordnáckta to appreciate the wisdom of the Old World, in an effort that failed miserably. However, she would be able to teach some things to Isauria. Along with learning how to live alone in the forest, Danka would have time to make her appreciate the Ancients and instruct her in the ways of the Realm of Nature.

Danka still wanted to eventually get rid of Isauria, but increasingly she understood that by purchasing her, she had taken on an important responsibility. Before they parted ways, she had to ensure the girl could take care of herself and have the skills necessary to successfully pursue her Path in Life in the Duchy.

* * *

Alexándrekt Buláshckt’s soul gradually changed after Danka left his household. He had always liked her, so the circumstances of her departure greatly upset him. At first he felt betrayed, but as he thought over the situation, he understood why she had become so disgusted with him and his family. Yes, it was true that the family had treated the house slaves in a completely dishonorable manner. It was true that the Young Slave would be much better off with Danka than with his nephew. And when Stepkakta had her baby and recovered, he would have to ensure she would not return to beating the Kitchen Slave.

Nowáckt was livid when he found out that his uncle had sold his servant. He was determined to go after Danka and recover his property, but Alexándrekt told him that the sale was legal and final, and that he had good reason to sell Isauria. He had bought the girl to teach Nowáckt to learn responsibility and how to wisely exercise authority over others. By mistreating his servant, defacing her appearance, and reducing her value, he had failed the test of character that Alexándrekt had given him. (The explanation was not entirely true: the original reason for purchasing Isauria was to keep Nowáckt from getting into trouble by chasing after neighbor girls. However, it was true that Alexándrekt became deeply disappointed with how his nephew had treated her.)

Malénkta-Gordnáckta prospered over the summer of 1756 and more Danubian settlers moved in. All of the land around the town was taken, but the farms south of the border in the Kingdom of the Moon were vacant. The inhabitants had been massacred or driven off by the Lord of the Blue Moon’s army and the fighting had since moved elsewhere. It was risky, but several families of Danubians took over properties on the southern shore of the river and Alexándrekt Buláshckt’s authority expanded into an area that was not officially part of the Duchy.

The mayor of Malénkta-Gordnáckta did not lead any more slave raids against foreign refugees. They had stopped coming into that part of the Duchy anyway, so the town would have to live by more honest means. Over time Alexándrekt regretted his behavior and knew that he would have a lot to answer for when he held up his mirror before the Creator. Perhaps he could justify his actions as a Royal Guard under the Grand Duke as following orders, but the slave raids had been entirely his responsibility.

Alexándrekt wrote extensively about his former friend and the moral dilemmas she had presented him. He wasn’t sure whether to refer to her as Silvítya or Danka. Like others before him, he simply omitted her name altogether.

Nowáckt also wrote about Danka, making up stories about a pretty witch sent by the Destroyer to seduce and steal from young boys and destroy their dreams. As he grew older, he shared some of his tales as campfire songs with his friends. The other teenagers started making up their own stories and the Girl with No Name became an increasingly loathsome and cruel temptress in the minds and songs of young men on the Duchy’s southern border.

Historian's Note: During the eighteenth century women in Europe generally could not buy, sell, or own property. However, the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia was an important exception, due to the country's history. The tradition of women owning property started in 1534 when King Vladik's successor faced the dilemma of defending the Duchy after most of its men had been killed in combat. He solved the crisis by recruiting unmarried village girls to organize into squads of guerilla archers to fight for the Duchy. The teenagers were called Nymphs and the reward for three years of service was title to a piece of property. After a generation the Duchy's population recovered and women lost many of the temporary privileges they had enjoyed during the mid 1500s, but a woman's right to own property remained part of Danubian law and tradition.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Chapter Twenty-Two – The Scavenger

The forest is an unforgiving mistress. Yes, the Ancients can bless those who live in the Realm of Nature by treating it with respect, but such blessings are only available to those who know where to seek them; and even for the wise, those blessings are usually fleeting. When one is in the forest, the goal is to eat before sunset and survive to see another sunrise. Perhaps it is possible to contemplate the future, but too much thought on the future and too little on the present is vanity.

Danka took her young slave into the mountains with those thoughts in mind. Strange to think, just a year before she had lived a pampered life in the Grand Duke's castle, and now she was about to embark on a life as a wanderer in the Duchy's wild country. She tried to remember all of the training she had received when she was a Follower. She would need every bit of that knowledge to make it through the rest of the summer and prepare for the upcoming winter.

Danka and Isauria spent the first week traveling east, ever deeper into the southern Danubian forest. The outcast was determined to get far away from Malénkta-Gordnáckta and anyone who had known her during her sojourn in that town. For the rest of her life she would harbor deep resentment against its inhabitants. She hated the men for willingly going out on slave-capturing raids, but she even more, she loathed the town’s women. She had spent months teaching them everything she knew about collecting food in the forest, sharing much of the knowledge passed to her by Babáckt Yaga and the other Followers. However, along with distributing practical knowledge, Danka had made the mistake of trying to pass along the philosophical wisdom of the Cult of the Ancients. She subconsciously wanted to influence the beliefs of her neighbors and have them reward her by accepting her as their de facto spiritual leader. She failed to understand that attempting to appoint herself as a spiritual guide was an act of hubris, and the Ancients always punished hubris. Danka’s self-appointed spiritual mission failed miserably and its only result was for the former cultist to be accused of being strange and then to be ignored, ridiculed, and ultimately ostracized. She felt betrayed by her female neighbors and resented the fact they had not accepted her as part of their community. So, she wanted nothing to do with the women of Malénkta-Gordnáckta and never wanted to see them again.

As soon as she was far enough from the town that it would be unlikely she’d run into any of its inhabitants, Danka had an important decision to make: which direction to continue her journey. The countryside immediately to the east and southeast was covered with thickly-forested low-lying hills, which contrasted with higher mountains that lay to the north. The mountains were part of a crescent-shaped chain that separated the southwest portion of the Duchy from the southeast part and at that time the highland region was completely unsettled. Beyond the northern mountains lay the Black Swamp of Misery, which was in reality a large marshland that fed into the Rika Chorna River. Either the mountains or the swamp would have been good places to hide, had Danka been a fugitive. However, she considered herself a traveler, not a fugitive, and had no desire to spend her remaining time in the Realm of the Living in a squalid cabin with an illiterate serving-girl in a lonely, isolated settlement. The only hope for either the woman or the girl to have a fulfilling Path in Life was to keep moving and see where the Ancients led them.

Danka decided to journey directly eastward and stay within a day’s walk of the Duchy’s southern border during the entire trip. At that time she had a vague idea of going to the Vice-Duchy of Rika Chorna and seeing if she could settle there. Danka did not know what to expect from the inhabitants of the Vice-Duchy, but it was away from western Danubia, which was what she wanted at the time. So, she and Isauria would continue working their way east, spend the summer in the forest, and eventually emerge into the Eastern Valley.

As was customary for Followers of the Ancients, whenever they were in the Realm of Nature and temperatures permitted, Danka and Isauria walked completely naked, wearing nothing but their boots. Isauria was not bothered by Danka’s order that she carry her clothing in her traveling pack instead of on her body. She already was used to being nude: as a collared slave she had been denied the right to wear clothing at any time. So, the naked girl plodded behind her naked mistress, with the heavy supply pack cutting into her bare shoulders and Danka’s uncovered bottom and thighs always in front of her.

Danka was not a sympathetic or patient teacher, because the Realm of Nature is not sympathetic or patient. Also, the former peasant had experienced very little sympathy in her life, so she did not know how to display it to anyone working under her. Danka was not kind to Isauria as we would understand kindness in modern times. She expected Isauria to carefully listen to everything she said and to follow her instructions exactly. On the few occasions when Isauria did not meet her expectations, she was harsh with her voice and as quick to use the switch as any other impatient slave-owner.

* * *

Isauria's Path in Life would be to remain Danka's servant and companion throughout 1756. She continued to wear her slave collar, partly because Danka did not have the tools necessary to remove it, and partly because Danka knew it would be best for the girl to consider herself a slave until her mistress felt she was ready to face the harsh world on her own.

The quiet girl clearly was not ready to fend for herself when Danka purchased her. Yes, she had endured several traumatic events during her short life, but trauma does not necessarily prepare a person to face the world. Isauria's only practical knowledge consisted of looking after sheep (from the days before she was taken captive) and housework (from her year living in Alexándrekt Buláshckt’s household). As for fending for herself in the forest, she was still a child, as naive as any guild-master's daughter.

So, it was Danka's Path in Life to teach her ward how to survive in the Realm of Nature. She trained the girl how to find anything that was edible, how to hide among the trees and find shelter, how to anticipate changes in the weather, how to identify animal tracks, and how to pack supplies and move about undetected. Within days Isauria knew how to forage for roots, mushrooms, and fruit. She knew how to set campfires and prepare a campsite while Danka was hunting or looking for promising trails. Her daily routine was grueling, but she became invaluable to her mistress.

During her first months in the woods Danka would teach Isauria how to set traps, tie knots, and make snares. She showed her the basics of fishing, which the girl picked up with ease. Isauria was fascinated with everything having to do with fish and became much more adept at catching fish than her mistress. Other skills learned by Isauria over the summer included searching for springs, collecting rainwater, making and reading maps, compass-reading, land navigation, using the stars to navigate at night, and moving about in total silence. The girl learned quickly and became competent at living outside. By the end of the summer Danka knew that if anything happened to her, Isauria would be able to survive on her own, at least for a while, and continue traveling.

In spite of her willingness to use the switch, by the standards of slave owners in eighteenth-century Danubia Danka was a good mistress and most foreign captives would have been happy to exchange places with Isauria. She never struck from anger or frustration, nor was she spiteful or condescending. She never did anything to humiliate her ward, which was a huge improvement in the girl's life over the treatment she had received from Alexándrekt Buláshckt and his nephew. Instead, Danka’s treatment directly reflected on how well the girl performed her duties. As long as Isauria followed instructions, she had nothing to fear. If she didn’t understand something, her owner encouraged her to request clarification. It was important that Isauria understood her responsibilities and why she needed to perform each duty in a certain way, so the only stupid questions were the ones she neglected to ask.

The social distance that normally would distinguish an owner from a slave was absent in Danka’s relationship with Isauria. Danka used the lower-class form of “you” when addressing the servant and told Isauria to use the same form when responding. Danka’s speech reverted to her peasant background, with Isauria expected to address her mistress in the same way a guild apprentice would address a mentor. Whatever food was available she shared in equal portions. She cared for the girl’s medical needs and allowed her to rest when she was sick. As for the travelers’ sleeping arrangements, Danka had with her a single sleeping roll, which she shared with her servant. Peasants were used to sharing beds, so Danka shared the sleeping roll with her ward in the same way she had shared her bed with her sister while growing up.

There were other ways Danka let Isauria know that she did not consider her mere property. She began to teach the servant to write during the rare occasions they weren’t occupied with wandering, hunting, scavenging, or gathering food. Isauria recognized the importance of writing, so on her own she practiced tracing letters in the dust whenever she had to opportunity, to the great satisfaction of her mentor. When Danka prayed to the Ancients, she insisted the girl accompany her. Over the summer Isauria learned about Danka’s religious beliefs, including singing some of the ancient hymns and speaking a few words in archaic Danubian.

* * *

Danka had never been as experienced at hunting or tracking animals as she was gathering edible plants. She had some basic information about forest animals from her year in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement, but even among the Followers hunting was a task mostly carried out by the men. Out of necessity, her hunting skills greatly improved over the summer of 1756. She snared her first rabbit two days after entering the forest . A week later she killed her first deer, a partially grown fawn. Over the month of June there were a few more rabbits and another deer. The dead animals were both a blessing and a hindrance. The hunts meant a better diet and a supply of animal skins, but also considerably slowed down the journey. Every time she killed an animal, she and her servant had to spend time at camp preparing smoked meat, preparing tanning solution with their urine and the animals' own brains, and scraping, stretching, and tanning the hides.

Along with basic survival skills and reading, Danka felt that her servant needed to know the basics of combat. She was concerned about being a woman alone in the forest and wanted the assurance that if she were attacked, Isauria could come to her assistance. Using the second dead deer’s carcass for practice, she taught Isauria several maneuvers with her dagger, making sure Isauria knew how to stab deeply and cut muscles and arteries, in spite of her small size and relative lack of strength. Using sticks, she taught her servant the basics of fencing and sword fighting. The sword-fighting was the hardest skill Danka passed along to her servant, because every time she did anything having to do with sword fighting, she had to struggle against the flash-backs of her final moments in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement.

Danka owned two weapons: her crossbow and the dagger given to her by Farmer Tuko Orsktackt. The crossbow would be useless if she ever ran out of bolts. By July running out of ammunition was becoming a real concern, in spite of her efforts to conserve and retrieve used bolts as much as possible. She just had to find more bolts and obtain a weapon for her servant and another for herself. The only items she had that she was willing to part with were a few animal skins, which would hardly suffice for what she needed to purchase. She realized that to obtain the weapons she wanted, she’d either have to steal them, or steal something else of value so she could purchase them. With that thought in mind she decided to make her way back to the settlements of eastern Hórkustk Ris province, but would try to avoid getting close to Malénkta-Gordnáckta. If she had to dishonor herself by stealing, at least she wanted to make sure she didn’t do so around people she knew.

It turned out she did not have to venture out into the cleared area of the province to obtain the new weapons. As the woman and the girl silently moved through the forest, they came to a clearing where they heard the pitiful crying of the voice of a teenaged boy. As they approached the crying sound, it abruptly stopped. Danka crept along some rocks and saw what had happened, a man was standing over the corpse of a boy that he apparently had just killed. The dead boy was wearing nothing but a pair of trousers and had his hands tied behind his back. The man was too distracted cleaning the boy’s blood off a sword to notice that he was not alone.

Danka decided she wanted the sword. The man was a murderer, so he probably would not be missed. Anyhow, she would avenge the dead boy. She armed her crossbow and crept closer to her target. She slipped behind a bush next to the clearing, stood up, and aimed. The man turned around just as the assailant released her bolt. He had enough time to see a young woman, naked from the waist up, pointing a crossbow at him. He screamed as the bolt pierced his chest. He was mortally wounded, but the shot did not kill him immediately. The scream turned into an agonized gurgle as he flailed on the ground and desperately grabbed at the bolt to remove it. Danka re-armed her crossbow and stood over her victim, her eyes full of sadistic triumph. She didn’t know why the man had killed the boy, nor did she care. The only thought on her mind was the weird joy of watching a person much stronger than herself helpless, struggling, and dying on the ground. Eventually the man coughed up blood and started shaking. His eyes rolled up as his movements slowed and stopped.

Danka looked around to make sure no one else was nearby. She noticed Isauria’s terrified face staring at her through the leaves. She retrieved the sword and held it up.

"Servant Isauria. Come here.”

The terrified, trembling girl approached her.

"Here’s the weapon I promised you. Go to the stream, rinse it off, and make sure it’s completely dry.”

"Y… yes…. Mistress Danka.”

While Isauria was occupied at the stream, Danka searched the clearing and the corpses for anything useful. Her victim’s shirt was ruined, which was too bad, thought Danka, because it looked expensive. However, the man’s boots and trousers were intact, so she pulled them off the corpse. The boy’s peasant vest and shoes were lying on the ground, which she took, as well as the rope used to bind his hands. Best of all, the man had an expensive dagger and a coin purse containing three silver and seven copper coins. She pulled the crossbow bolt from his corpse. It was broken and useless, but she did not want to leave it for anyone to find.

After having taken anything of value from the bodies, she left them. She thought about trying to bury the boy, but abandoned that idea when she heard a dog barking in the distance. She tapped her servant on the shoulder and they slipped away into the brush. Danka never learned what had happened between the man and the boy, or whether there had been any justification for the boy’s death. The dispute between those two was of no concern to her. What mattered was that she now had money and items to trade for additional crossbow bolts.

Danka led her servant to the edge of the forest. She turned northward and reconnoitered the cleared area until she spotted a large village likely to have a blacksmith who could supply her with crossbow bolts. She then put on her trader’s disguise and consolidated her belongings into a single backpack that Isauria would have to carry. She took Isauria’s sword and told the girl that, following protocol for a slave, she would have to remain naked. The girl struggled with the heavy burden as Danka led her into the village.

Danka replenished her depleted supply of crossbow bolts and had both her dagger and the sword sharpened by the smith. While waiting for her weapons, she visited the tanner to have her servant’s boots repaired and to sell a deerskin and the stolen boots. She spent her remaining coins on salt, a specialized hide scraper, flint for starting fires, sewing supplies, two loaves of fresh bread, and a sweet-roll for her ward. Isauria looked at her mistress in dumbfounded gratitude when she was handed the treat. For an ordinary person Danka’s generosity would have been a trivial gesture, but for a slave to be given something like a sweet-roll was a huge signal of goodwill and approval from her owner.

The traveler was enormously relieved when she returned to the woods with her supplies replenished. She stripped and put away her clothes, split the load into two backpacks, retrieved her bucket, and directed her servant to follow her to the southern border of the Duchy.

As they traveled, Danka took advantage of breaks to continue teaching Isauria how to use her sword. She also decided it was time for the girl to learn how to operate the crossbow. Isauria struggled with a weapon that seemed almost as big as herself. Drawing back the bow took every bit of strength she had and at the beginning she could barely keep control when the trigger was released. However, she persevered and eventually Danka felt she was ready to use a few of her precious bolts and aim at targets.

* * *

At the height of the summer, in the middle of July, Danka led Isauria southward on the pair's foraging expeditions. They traveled along the southern border, where the woods opened up to the Lord of the Blue Moon's territory. They emerged near a village that seemed completely deserted, with every structure in sight destroyed or burnt. The people were gone. Danka commented that the Lord of the Red Moon must have invaded the area.

Isauria, whose family had been massacred by the Lord of the Blue Moon's men, glanced apprehensively towards the open country, clearly having no desire to leave the safety of the Duchy. However, Danka wanted to explore the settlement and a couple of nearby abandoned manors, hoping to scavenge for useful items that had been abandoned during the fighting. They hid the majority of their supplies and at night forded a shallow spot in the river. Upon crossing, they both got dressed in their trader’s guild outfits, even though no one was in sight. Unlike the relatively casual attitude of Danubians, women in the Kingdom of the Moon absolutely never appeared naked in public, even at night or on their own properties or in isolated areas.

They cautiously made their way towards the ruins, their path illuminated by moonlight. Danka was used to traveling through the forest in the dark, so moving along an open road under a full moon was easy. The ominous ruins loomed at the top of the embankment. The woman and her servant slowly moved uphill, listening for footsteps and smelling the air for anything unusual. Danka heard the light scattering of animals moving about. There was a very slight whiff of carbon and of corpses that had long since decomposed. Apart from that, the only smells were those in any typical open area.

It turned out the village had been abandoned for a long time. Still, it was not a pleasant place. The streets were a labyrinth of ruined buildings and rubble. Much worse were all the skeletons, some still intact and some scattered, which were everywhere. The streets and houses were full of bones. Many more skeletons were hanging on the walls, the victims of impalement. An even worse detail were the numerous skulls that were mounted on poles stuck into the ground, with their empty eye sockets staring at the two visitors.

Danka froze, her feet firmly anchored to the ground. Her world went completely dark. A pair of bright yellow eyes appeared in the distance. They were tiny at first, because they were so far away. They slowly approached and grew much larger. The Destroyer's face filled Danka's vision as her knees shook with terror.

"Danka... Danka Síluckt... I've been waiting for you. I knew you'd come. I knew you'd return to me. I knew that, because I gave you no choice."

"Wh... what do you... what do you want from me?"

"I want you to know me. I want you to know me well. You will have to learn my ways... if you want to remain in the Realm of the Living... and if you want your little slave to remain in the Realm of the Living. To know me. That is all I ask of you."

"I don't want to know you. I serve the Ancients. I don't serve you."

"The Ancients are not here, Danka Síluckt. Do not concern yourself with the Ancients, because they are not here. This is my realm, not theirs. If you don't wish to believe me, try praying to them. They will answer you with their silence."

"But... what do you want from me?"

"I've already told you what I want, Danka Síluckt. You will learn my ways. And as you come to know me, I will act through you. You will prosper, and your slave's safety is assured."

"And... you did this? Everything around me... this is your doing?"

"Mine... or the Lord of the Red Moon, if you prefer... this was a Blue Moon village, you know... the Lord of the Red Moon paid these subjects a visit... on my behalf, as you might guess."


"Yes indeed... why? Why? Why? Why?"

The eyes vanished and the ground released Danka's feet. Danka realized that Isauria was holding onto her arm, with her small body badly shaking.

"Mistress Danka... Mistress Danka... the owl..."

Sure enough... a large owl was sitting on a nearby ruined wall... its unblinking eyes staring at the woman and the girl in the cold moonlight. The bird took off and silently vanished.

"Mistress Danka... you were talking..."

"That doesn't concern you, Servant Isauria. You don't want to know..."

"Yes Mistress."

"Come along. It's getting light outside. We need to search around... see what we can find."

"I... I'm scared, Mistress."

"Of course you're scared. And perhaps... you think I'm not? It doesn't matter, because fear won't fill our stomachs. We can be scared all we want, but we still have to see what's here."

So, as the sky lightened, they searched the town. It was a cool dreary overcast morning. The forlorn weather seemed perfectly suited for the bleak ruins and their endless supply of skeletons. Each skeleton had its own depressing story, from being the remains of a once-living person who died a horrible death. The woman and the girl were reluctant to go anywhere close to the corpses, but they needed to closely examine each one. Occasionally there would be a ring or a coin next to a set of bones, something that was overlooked when the Lord of the Red Moon's troops massacred and looted the town. They spent the entire day going through the destroyed houses, finding metal items such as cutlery, tools, and a few porcelain cups and dishes that had miraculously survived the fires and building collapses.

By mid-afternoon Danka had collected enough objects to fill three sacks. She was surprised the town had not been more thoroughly scavenged. She did not know that priests from the Lord of the Red Moon's army had officially cursed the area, which made it off-limits for anyone in the Red Moon faction. All of the Lord of the Blue Moon's supporters had been killed or had long since fled, so the only people who would consider coming in were wandering Danubians, who were rightly concerned about being captured and tortured by foreign soldiers who were still bitter about the defeat in Hórkustk Ris.

The woman and the girl returned to the Duchy after dark, carefully fording the river with multiple sacks of loot. Most of the items were metal that she would trade to a blacksmith for additional crossbow bolts. However, some of the tools she would keep in case she had to set up a shelter to pass the upcoming winter. Some items, such as a few rings and a necklace, would be very valuable if she could find an honest buyer and negotiate a good price.

The wanderer and her slave stashed everything in a small cave along with Danka's bucket. They foraged the next day's meal and rested in preparation to cross back over and look for anything they might have missed on the first trip. Danka already had enough for a very nice day of trading, but she became greedy. She wanted more. So, there would be at least one more dangerous day across the border foraging among the ruins.

Isauria continued to be scared out of her wits, but Danka's emotions had changed. Instead of raw fear, she felt hostility, determination, and cold anger. She wasn't sure who to be angry at, but finally vented her emotions against the Ancients, who had forsaken her and forced her into her current situation. So... the Destroyer was right. The Ancients were indeed silent and no longer watching over her. Maybe the Ancients had departed, or maybe they were never watching over her in the first place. What mattered was that they currently were not part of her life. Her only reality was the Destroyer.

Danka and Isauria ventured more into the remaining houses and poked around in the rubble. The skeletons of people who obviously had died while being tortured were all around them. Depravity and atrocities were the only reality the residents had faced on their final day in the Realm of the Living. In one ruined room, the partially mummified remains of three children hung on hooks, facing another decomposed body that had been chained to a post. Probably the corpses were of children impaled in front of a parent who was forced to watch. Danka took a deep breath and continued searching.

Two coins... an axe head... a bayonet.. .some lead musket balls... a buckle... another coin... some metal buttons... a pair of shears... hooks... a piece of chain...

They moved on to a house that still had its walls, but was missing its roof. It seemed to be a good place to seek shelter, because it had a commanding view of the surrounding collapsed ruins. As Danka pried open a burnt strong-box, she felt a silent tap on her arm. Isauria pointed at the window and held up two fingers. Danka armed her crossbow and crept to a break in the wall. Two armed men were outside, suspiciously looking around. One of the men was wearing a bloody Danubian tunic and carrying a crossbow, but because of his long hair it was obvious he was not Danubian. The other man looked like a deserter from one of the Kingdom's armed factions.

Crossbows were not commonly used in the Kingdom of the Moon, so Danka hoped that perhaps the bowman's companion would not be able to operate it. Anyhow, she decided that she wanted the weapon for Isauria. She knew that her life was in grave danger and that she should have been scared, but her thoughts focused on seizing the crossbow and whatever else those men had on them. She calculated how best to kill the strangers. Using sign language, she ordered Isauria to be ready to take and re-arm her crossbow as soon as she fired it. Isauria held onto her sword, trembling as Danka took aim. At the last second Danka decided to switch targets. She'd not kill the man with the crossbow, but instead target his companion. She calculated the man with the crossbow probably did not have much practice and would miss when he fired. A missed shot would give her precious time to reload and kill her second victim.

Danka released her bolt with deadly accuracy. Her target spun around screaming, so his companion did not immediately know where the shot had come from. The man frantically looked around and took cover. Danka tightened her lips: she had not expected the bowman to hide and save his bolt. She handed the crossbow to Isauria and took the sword. The girl gasped and grunted as she struggled to reload the weapon. Danka ignored her and peered through the window, only to see the bowman's head facing in her direction... she swallowed and tried to suppress her fear. He had figured out her position. She took the crossbow from Isauria and passed back the sword. She motioned Isauria to move back against the wall and guard the back door. The girl was shaking so badly that she could barely hold her sword. Danka figured she'd be useless... and that she would have to fight on her own.

Danka heard a frightened gasp and a crash behind her. As she spun around, she saw that a third man had burst into the room and Isauria had brought her sword down upon his neck. The enemy was injured with a painful cut , but not incapacitated. He screamed, grabbed the girl, and rolled on top of her. Fortunately his injury gave Danka time to react before he could kill the girl. With every bit of her strength, Danka kicked him squarely in the face. Stunned, he fell off Isauria, giving her time to recover the sword.

"Finish him!"

Isauria hacked at the intruder while Danka turned back to the window, just in time to see the first opponent charging towards her, armed with a musket equipped with a bayonet. Her crossbow misfired, but she hit him in the leg, causing him to miss when he lunged with his weapon. The musket tumbled to the floor, but the man hit Danka in the stomach with his fist, knocking the wind out of her. He straddled her and clenched his hands around her throat. Danka was about to pass out when she heard a high-pitched scream. The grip on her throat loosened as Danka's assailant turned to attack the girl who had just tried to stab him in the back. He grabbed both the sword and the girl. Danka recovered and grabbed her dagger and plunged it into the man's thigh. She clenched her teeth and stabbed again, digging the blade into his hip. Isauria pulled free, grabbed a stone block, and hurled it at the man's head. Danka stabbed again, but the blow was ineffective. The man grabbed Danka's wrist and tried to force the dagger from her hand.

Isauria was the one who killed the assailant. She picked up another block, and instead of throwing at the man's head, held on to it and brought it down on his skull with a tremendous blow that cracked the bone. She screamed with her high-pitched voice as the rock found its target. The man's bloody body went into convulsions as Danka held her throat and tried to recover her breath. Isauria was on her knees, crying.

For a moment neither the woman nor the girl could react to what had just happened. They were winded and bruised, but fortunately neither was injured. The enemy's convulsions stopped as both men's blood stained the ruined floor. Finally Danka recovered enough to stand up. She stripped the bodies of their belts, holsters, and boots. She cut off the buttons and retrieved a coin-purse and some beef jerky, which she gave to Isauria. She retrieved the musket and a packet of gunpowder. The musket would not be of much use to her in the forest, but would certainly fetch a nice price in the market.

Finally, Danka led her servant outside, to search the third body and recover the foreigner's crossbow. It was not in the best shape, but could easily be fixed. A sword, more boots, another dagger, and some crossbow bolts were added to their sack of loot.

The mistress and her shaken servant made their way back to the river, weighted down with sacks of metal and tools. Much more important were the new weapons. Danka now felt that they both were adequately armed for whatever awaited them in their Paths in Life.

* * *

Danka and Isauria spent several days moving their items to a safer location away from the border. They returned to the village where they had previously traded, sold the musket, and exchanged most of the metal objects for more bolts and supplies needed to get them through the winter. Danka decided to purchase a donkey from a young farmer to carry the supplies, which she paid for with her collection of scavenged jewelry.

When they left the town, Danka formally presented Isauria with the captured crossbow, a satchel of bolts, a canteen, and a fine dagger. The girl quietly accepted the weapons. Her Path in Life, like that of Danka, would include violence. She was barely twelve years old, but already had killed two men.

They retrieved their remaining tools and supplies and traveled well to the east of their first incursion into the Kingdom of the Moon. As they moved through the back country, Danka intensified Isauria's training and education. There were enough crossbow bolts for Isauria to use on target practice, there was mock sword fighting, and practices with close combat. Danka produced some parchment and ink for Isauria to practice writing, and ordered the girl to keep a journal of their travels and observations. Isauria's life was hard and the learning was frustrating, but she did as she was told and never complained. She did not understand what type of life her mistress was preparing her for, but obviously it was not to be a house servant or a sex slave.

Throughout the trip, the donkey turned out to be a bothersome necessity. Yes, they needed help carrying their supplies, but having a large animal slowed their progress and made them much more visible in the forest. Danka had to give up the idea of traveling to Rika Chorna that year: she announced that she and Isauria would winter in the mountains and go east the following spring. They'd build a comfortable shelter, sell or butcher the donkey in the fall, and continue their journey on foot after the snow melted in the higher elevations.

Meanwhile, Danka calculated they would continue to scavenge the ruins of the Kingdom of the Moon for valuable items. The Danubian outcast and her servant kept close to the edge of the forest, leaving behind the donkey and crossing the river at night to search the ruins for items that might be useful. However, when they returned south, nothing awaited them but disappointment. They continued looking for anything they could scavenge, but apart from some rusted metal, they found very little in the ruins. No... from the villages to the east, nothing remained.

As Danka and Isauria wandered the edges of the Kingdom of the Moon, all they could see was the work of the Destroyer. It was true that two years before Danka had witnessed plenty of cruelty and devastation on the Grand Duke's campaign, but what she had seen in 1754 came nowhere close to the absolute desolation that had swept across the southern kingdom. It was all the same, everywhere they went. It seemed that both the Lord of the Red Moon and the Lord of the Blue Moon had completely lost their sanity. As a result, the Kingdom of the Moon was dying.

The civil war had been going on for just two years. At that time Danka and Isauria had no way of knowing there would be eight more years of war to go.

* * *

At the end of August, the journey of Danka and Isauria paralleled territory that was more firmly under the control of the Lord of the Blue Moon. The villages had not yet been invaded and that section of the Kingdom seemed intact, at least for the time-being. As a lone Danubian, Danka was much more at risk if she attempted to cross into the hostile territory, so the explorations would have to cease. She considered moving well to the north of the border, to avoid risk of running into bands of Blue Moon troops that might want to cross and forage in the Duchy's territory.

She changed her mind when she came across a group of foreign woodcutters who had crossed the river to exploit the Danubian forest. The lumberjacks had cleared a sizable area, leaving it exposed to the south. As anyone from the Duchy would have viewed it, the men were invaders who were stealing Danubian resources and usurping Danubian land.

Danka decided to take it upon herself to "defend the Duchy", as she put it. In reality what she wanted was the foreigners' equipment and camping supplies, after having spent a month wandering ruined villages searching for items to scavenge in vain. "Defending the Duchy" was pure fiction, but it justified the fact she was about to attack the woodcutters so she could take their belongings.

The Danubian wanderer directed her servant to lead their donkey to a watering hole, secure him with some food so he would not be tempted to wander off, and to off-load and hide their supplies. Meanwhile, Danka scouted the logging camp. It seemed there were about 20 men working in the area, some were cutting down trees, some preparing charcoal, and four others were cutting boards. When she saw all of their equipment and supplies, Danka's mouth watered. Axes, saws, hammers, nails, a small forge, weapons, four oxen, chickens, leather, finished boards, ale, glassware...all for the taking. The only thing that stood between her and all that loot was 20 men, who she'd have to figure out how to kill.

The loggers posted a guard throughout the night, but otherwise their security was completely deficient. Danka figured the most difficult task would be killing the sentry in silence. She had plenty of training and experience moving through a hostile area in silence and killing with a dagger, so the other men she could kill in their sleep. There would be some danger, because she'd have to move among the loggers. A single mistake, or a chance awakening, would ruin her plan and most likely end her life.

As she observed the foreigners, Danka realized it would be better to go after them at dusk, after they finished working but before they went to bed. Towards the end of every afternoon several wagon teams arrived from the south, loaded boards and charcoal, and left behind a supply of fresh meat and ale. The men feasted and usually became obscenely drunk. One-by-one they wandered into the bushes to urinate, often becoming lost as they tried to get back to the camp in their drunken stupor. As they stumbled into the woods, they could be killed individually, without their companions knowing anything was wrong.

Danka and Isauria put on their boots and leather peasant skirts. Like the legendary Nymphs, the female guerrilla archers from two centuries before, they carried nothing but their weapons and were completely naked from the waist up.

Isauria slept curled up at the base of a large tree while Danka crept forward to watch the final hours of the loggers' routine. As always, the wagons from the south arrived to take away boards and leave behind a supply of ale and fresh meat. The smell of the cooking tormented the Danubian, who was used to the Spartan diet provided by the forest. The tree cutters and charcoal burners drifted in from the edges of the encampment towards a large fire. They took their first portion of strong ale, one full bottle per man.

As she crouched in the darkness, Danka counted 22 foreigners altogether. She felt the Destroyer's presence, like a hand on her shoulder. Greed and hatred filled her soul as she watched her future victims finish their first round of ale and take a second round. They consumed vast quantities of meat as they became drunk. Danka slipped back to the tree to summon Isauria, who was sitting in the darkness and cradling her crossbow with a terrified expression. Danka explained what was about to happen as they returned to the camp. She would pick each target and have Isauria accompany her as backup, knowing that she was proficient enough with the crossbow that she could rely on her to fire the second bolt at each enemy.

When they returned, they heard bushes rustling and the distinct sound of a man relieving himself. Danka tapped her servant's arm and aimed her weapon at the silhouette. They fired silently and killed silently, as befitting of Followers, woods-women, and Danubian Nymphs. The man fell to the ground without making a sound. Isauria performed with her crossbow as Danka expected, but she was terrified at the turn of events and her mistress's merciless behavior.

They crept around the encampment in the dark, waiting for the next drunkard. Within a few minutes a second man was lying in the brush, dead from bolts he never saw coming. Within an hour, half of the loggers had been dispatched in the woods. Those remaining at the fire were too drunk to defend themselves. Danka led Isauria into the camp itself, planning to dispatch the cook next, since he seemed to be more sober and alert than his companions. Two bolts finished off the cook, and when his assistant discovered his body and frantically looked around, he was next.

The men remaining at the fire began to realize something was not right. No one who had gotten up had come back. Two went out to investigate, as Danka and her slave slipped out ahead to intercept them in the bushes. They staggered around, the alcohol blunting their awareness to the silent danger that awaited. Two more shots... four more bolts... two less men in the camp. Another man stumbled into the darkness and was stopped by the two assailants.

The men remaining in the camp now were standing up and reaching for their muskets. Finally they realized the camp was under attack. Danka decided to act quickly against the surviving foreigners. She and her assistant fired rapidly at a young man with a large musket. He fired as he fell, the noise from his firearm adding to the confusion of the others. Danka and Isauria re-loaded and fired again. Four remaining men now realized where the bolts were coming from and incoherently shot in unison. Danka and Isauria rolled to the side just in time to be clear of the musket balls that whizzed past them. They slipped through the trees as the men came after them. They snuck around to the opposite side of the camp and shot into the back of a logger who was facing in the opposite direction. They had just enough time to reload their crossbows to take out another man charging in their direction. By now the remaining pair of loggers were in a pure state of drunken panic, calling out to companions who no longer were alive. They fled back into the camp towards the oxen, trying to reload their muskets. Danka scuttled through piles of lumber in pursuit. She stood up and aimed at one of the men. He turned and frantically aimed his musket, but it was too late. Danka released her bolt and her victim fell screaming. Isauria caught up to her and fired a finishing shot into his chest.

Only one logger remained alive, but it turned out he was the most difficult to kill. By now he had sobered up enough to stay hidden and listen for the enemy's footsteps. Danka had to order Isauria to go out into the woods and throw rocks to flush him out while she moved about the camp. The man saw her and for the next hour they chased each other around wood piles as the fire slowly died. Finally Isauria, who had remained hidden, ambushed and shot the man in the stomach, and it was Danka's turn to finish him off with a second shot.

The woman and the girl did not have time to think about anything apart from surviving the fight while it was happening. Now that the loggers had been exterminated, the enormity of what they had just done began to sink in. A young peasant woman and her adolescent servant had committed a massacre of 22 human beings. Danka felt nothing but cold triumph, but Isauria was clearly distressed. As they looked around at the bodies, Danka noted the girl's bewildered and frightened expression.

"In the forest, the wolf must kill to eat, and it's better to be a wolf than a sheep. Is that not so, Servant Isauria?"

Isauria took a deep breath. She was trembling, but she forced herself to answer. "Yes, Mistress Danka."

"I am a wolf. A vicious she-wolf. You're a wolf too. A smaller wolf, not much more than a cub, but a wolf nonetheless. Is that not so, Servant Isauria?"

"Yes, Mistress Danka. That is so."

"Very good. With your help, I have re-taken this land for the Duchy. You did well tonight and pleased me with your performance."

"Thank you, Mistress."

When Danka looked towards the moon, an owl, that owl, was perched on a branch watching her. The Destroyer said nothing. The bird simply sat for a while, observing the campsite, before flying off.

Danka and Isauria feasted on the remains of their victims' beef and pork. As much as she also wanted to indulge in their ale, she avoided it, knowing that she needed to keep her wits about her. For lighting she told Isauria to re-stoke the fire as she began looting the camp. The first priority was to examine all of the visible corpses, to make sure they were dead, retrieve any bolts that were not damaged, and look for small valuable items such as coins, daggers, rings, and medallions. At daybreak she'd have to explore the woods to look at the other corpses, the ones hidden in the bushes.

Next, she gathered all the weapons she could find and moved them to the edge of the clearing. She piled axes and saws near the weapons. She gathered up all the cooking utensils. Her heart jumped into her throat when she saw a large barrel of salt and several bags of flour. The tools... the supplies... the weapons... if she could just take all those items and secure them, not only would she be rich by Danubian standards, but she'd also have everything she and Isauria would need to live in comfort throughout the winter. As the day broke and there was enough light, she ransacked the sleeping cabin while Isauria stood guard.

Isauria appeared at the entrance and silently called her mentor's attention to a noise she had heard outside. Danka looked out, noticing that the birds had gone silent. She and Isauria armed their crossbows. She could hear movement in the bushes as a woman's voice called out to her in Danubian:

"Come out and put your crossbows on the ground. There are only two of you and there are a lot more of us. We want to meet with you, but you must disarm your weapon and step away from it."

Danka exchanged glances with Isauria. When she hesitated, the voice continued: "Don't be a fool. Put down your crossbow and stand where we can properly see you. We're not planning to take it from you."

"Who are you?"

"We're Defenders of the Duchy. Now put down your crossbow. Then we'll talk."

Very reluctantly, Danka disarmed her crossbow and set it on the ground. Isauria followed suit. The woman and the girl moved forward two fathoms and stood in the open. Ten Danubians, three women and seven men, stepped into the clearing through the bushes. The women were dressed like Danka: in short leather skirts and boots. The carried crossbows and the only item each wore above her waist was a satchel for bolts. The men wore green tunics that were open on the sides. They wore nothing underneath apart from sturdy boots. Two of the men had short swords, two had muskets, and the others had crossbows.

The oldest man in the group stepped forward. The woman who had called out to Danka from the trees continued, "Please salute our commander. And we will show you the same respect you choose to show us."

Danka tapped her servant's shoulder and reluctantly saluted the stranger by tapping her right fist to her left shoulder. Isauria copied her mistress's actions and saluted as well. The older man returned the salute.

"Greetings. My name is Commander Sáupeckt. I lead military operations in this region. As you've already been told, we are Defenders of the Duchy. Now, what is your name?"

"Danka, Commander Sáupeckt. My name is Danka Síluckt."

"Excellent. So you weren't stupid enough to lie about your name. And your companion? What's her name?"


The commander looked over the servant.

"You're not Danubian..."

"No, Master. I'm from a manor south of Malénkta-Gordnáckta."

"Commander. I'm not a 'Master', I am a Commander."

"Yes... Commander... Commander Sáupeckt."

"That's much better." Commander Sáupeckt directed his next comment at Danka: "We've been watching you for several days. You're a competent woods-woman, but if you were as good as you think you are, you would have noticed our presence. We'll have to work on that. You obviously know how to operate a crossbow. I congratulate you on your success here."

"Thank you, Commander."

"I may congratulate your success, but that is not to say I'm pleased with what you did. Because of this massacre, this area will be full of Blue Moon troops, seeking to find out what happened to these loggers and avenge them. There are three nearby villages to the east that we'll have to evacuate and defend. Because of the time of year, you've just placed the region's fall harvest at risk. We'll spend the fall in combat instead of strengthening our defense network, which is not what I was planning. I did want to confront these loggers, but they were not a top priority. Not now... not at this time of the year."

"Yes, Commander."

"So... the question in front of us is not what has been done, but where do we go from here. With your experience, you'll have an easy time redeeming yourself. You will do so as a Nymph under my command. As of now... you are members of Oana's squad..." the commander pointed at the oldest of the three women, the one who had called out to her... "both you and the girl."

Danka said nothing, trying to think how she could stall for time and slip away. The sharp-witted commander saw the doubt in her eyes and continued, "We've already secured your belongings and are taking them to the main winter camp. You'll find them waiting for you in your sleeping quarters. They were not as well-hidden as you thought."

Danka gave up on any thoughts of escape. Without her equipment and supplies she could not hope to survive the winter in the mountains. She and Isauria had been drafted into the militia and that was the end of it. She'd have to make the best of her situation, just as she had to make the best out of being a concubine for the Grand Duke.

"As for what's here, everything in this campsite belongs to the Duchy. I will give you first pick at choosing one dagger and one short-sword. You can keep one medallion, one ring, and a fourth of the coins. The coins are compensation for your efforts and reimbursement for selling us your donkey."

"Yes, Commander Sáupeckt."

"Good. Now, report to your squad leader."

Danka and Isauria turned to Oana. She gave Danka a sharp look, until the newcomer realized that she needed to salute. By saluting, she acknowledged that she was under Oana's command and obligated to obey her orders.

Additional Defenders arrived to help clean out the logging camp. They picked up all the tools, bedding, and cooking utensils, cleaned out the bunk house, and drove away the four oxen. Meanwhile, Oana led Danka and eleven other female archers to the road, where they would ambush and kill the wagon drivers tasked with resupplying the loggers for the day. As they set up, Oana treated Danka the same as she treated any of the other archers in her squad. She was expected to follow orders, coordinate with her peers, and perform her duty with her crossbow. The fact she had joined the unit just minutes before meant nothing. For the time being, she'd be able to keep Isauria as her assistant, but the squad leader hinted Isauria's role and her relationship with her mistress would change within a few days.

The ambush of the teamsters later that afternoon was anti-climactic. There were eight of them: when Oana ordered her Nymphs to fire their crossbows, the foreigners all died instantly. The Danubian women took control of the mules, picked up the bodies, loaded them into the wagons, and continued the journey to the camp. By the time the Nymphs arrived, the logging compound had been completely dismantled. The Defenders already had made off with the best wood: the rest was used to create a funeral pyre to dispose of the victims from the night before, as well as the eight new corpses. The bodies were laid out in a neat row, ready to be thrown onto the fire from a wagon that was being used as a platform.

A poorly-dressed Priest from the Old Believers' sect arrived to say a prayer for the dead foreigners. As soon as he finished, several men came out with flutes and a drum. Oana's Nymphs, including Danka and Isauria, stripped off their skirts and boots. The women spent the next hour dancing naked while the musicians played and the men took turns mounting the wagon to toss corpses into the fire. It was an ancient and sinister celebration of death and victory, an acknowledgement of the Destroyer and the power that "the Profane One" held over the Realm of the Living.

Danka learned the dance and repeated it as best she could. She now was a member of Oana's squad of Nymphs and a Defender of the Duchy. As such, she had her duties, which she would perform as well as possible.

She glanced upward at the tree tops. After a scanning the branches for a few seconds she found what she was looking for. Sure enough, from a distance two unblinking yellow eyes were staring back at her.

Chapter Twenty-Three – The Nymph

After the celebratory dance had ended and Commander Sáupeckt’s troops had the chance to rest, the militia evacuated the camp at daybreak. Danka was amazed by how completely the place had been stripped when she had the chance to see it in the light. She put on her skirt, but her squad leader ordered her to take it off and hand it to another Nymph who had, up until that moment, been naked. Danka already had noticed that one of her companions had been wearing nothing but her boots, but didn’t have time to ask why during the previous day’s fighting. It turned out the newest member of any squad among the Defenders, male or female, had to endure an initiation process which included not wearing any clothing, to symbolically strip the recruit of their previous life and to identify that person to the world as “the newcomer”. Squad leader Oana, irritated that Danka was a slave-owner, did not order Isauria to give up her skirt. Oana justified the decision by telling Danka that, since Isauria was only an apprentice, the initiation rule did not apply to her. It was a humbling experience for Danka to be naked while Isauria stayed dressed, partially intended to force Danka and Isauria to see each other as equals.

Danka did not have much time to think about her nudity. She and Isauria spent the end of August and the first half of September following Oana and the rest of her squad of Nymphs, going from one skirmish against the Kingdom's soldiers to another. There were so many raids that she lost count, all of them seemingly the same. Oana’s squad provided cover for the men during the initial attack, then fall back to a secondary ambush location to launch a quick series of volleys of bolts at the enemy. When the Defenders' men moved to the next ambush site, the archers fired again to cover their movements, then ran away at full speed through an escape route already selected by their squad leader.

In spite of the initiation requirement, Oana quickly earned the respect of Danka. She knew the countryside in detail and knew how to support the men while minimizing risk to her own squad members. Every day she inspected her subordinates and looked over their bodies and equipment. She conducted frequent drills and target practice, making sure that each of her women knew her role in every operation, how to withdraw from a possible defeat without panicking, and how to maximize cover for not only the men, but also for the other squad members. She knew some forest survival and concealment techniques that Danka had not yet learned.

When Oana discovered that Danka had been a Follower of the Ancients, she interrogated the newcomer about her knowledge of both medicine and foraging, making note of things she did not yet know. She then ordered Danka to share her knowledge with the others. The Defenders seemed more appreciative of Danka’s information than had been the women of Malénkta-Gordnáckta, partly because she did not repeat her mistake of trying to impose her religious beliefs on anyone.

The squad members completely accepted Danka as part of their group as soon as she proved herself with her crossbow and her knowledge. She was much more valuable than most recruits and enjoyed the respect of her peers, something she had not experienced since she had been with the Followers of the Ancients. She fit in so much that the others regretted that she had to run around as a naked recruit, but like everyone else, she had to endure the initiation routine and would get her skirt back only when Oana managed to recruit a newer member for her squad.

* * *

Commander Sáupeckt’s main responsibility was to safeguard the southern approaches to three settlements of Danubian homesteaders who had set up their farms a decade before. The villages were isolated, wretched places, but vital to the well-being of the Danubian militia because of the food they produced. As September passed and the villagers harvested their grain, the Defenders needed to hold off several attacks from the Lord of the Blue Moon. The enemy commanders already knew about the villages and occasionally had made half-hearted attempts to destroy them. Danka’s raid against the logging camp and the follow-up raid on the wagon team were considered provocations, thus making the enemy more determined than ever to attack the villages in retaliation.

Commander Sáupeckt normally led a force of about 80 raiders. However, the fighters under his command could vary between 40 and 200, depending on what was happening along the border at that moment. As soon as Commander Sáupeckt saw the dead loggers, he dispatched messengers to the other area commanders explaining what happened and that the focus of the fighting was about to shift to protecting the settlements against a sustained attack from the south. Within days after Danka's raid, he had 200 militia members under his command: the 80 troops who were permanently under his control, plus 120 other militia members who had been lent to him by other commanders. Commander Sáupeckt’s counterpart, who was guarding the eastern approaches to the villages, also commanded a temporary force of 200 militia members.

The most serious incursion took place during the week of the Fall Equinox, when several companies of foreign musket men marched towards the settlements. The Danubian militia fought with desperation and there were numerous casualties on both sides. The enemy’s advance certainly was slowed, but the column was too large to force back. By September 22, the Blue Moon troops were less than a day’s journey from the settlements. Assuming they took the area and burnt the harvest, the Danubians would have a very hard time campaigning in that region over the following year due to lack of food.

Weather came to the Defenders’ aid that night, in a manner similar to the way it aided the Grand Duke two years before in the hills surrounding the border fortress in Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt. A heavy thunderstorm swept over the area, making the Blue Moons’ muskets almost useless. Commander Sáupeckt ordered a full-scale midnight assault in the middle of the storm, which turned into a bloody melee of hand-to-hand clashes. The Defenders sustained heavy casualties, but the situation was completely to their advantage. They knew the area, were used to fighting in the forest, and had trained to fight in the dark. By daybreak the numerical advantage of the Blue Moon troops was greatly reduced.

As soon there was enough light, the Defenders withdrew, trying to take as many of their injured as possible. Still, dozens of Danubians had been taken captive. The prisoners would be impaled if they could not be quickly rescued, so Commander Sáupeckt needed to press the next attack. The Danubians launched a follow-up assault with every crossbow they had available. Although the crossbows were less effective in wet conditions, at least they functioned. The return fire from the waterlogged muskets was only sporadic. The continuing rain put the enemy at a huge disadvantage.

Oana led her squad very close to an enemy squad of musketeers. Danka felt the short range was reckless, but her leader wanted to make sure every crossbow found its target. Danka’s doubts seemed vindicated when the woman fighting next her took a fatal musket-ball to the chest. However, the enemy squad was completely wiped out after the second volley of bolts. By mid-morning the commander of the Blue Moon column realized he was not going to be able to continue advancing. In fact, he would be very lucky if he managed to return to the Kingdom of the Moon with his remaining men.

The enemy commander knew enough about the Danubians and their concept of honor that he was able to arrange a retreat. He left some of the Danubian prisoners tied up but alive as his troops pulled back. To abandon prisoners instead of impaling them was considered a humiliation for a commander from the Kingdom of the Moon, but this particular opponent was more worried about having his troops surviving to fight another day than a personal humiliation. As the Blue Moon troops departed further south, they left behind more captives. Over the next two days, the Blue Moon troops continued their slow withdrawal with the Defenders surrounding them, but withholding another attack in anticipation of having more prisoners left behind.

The Danubians were grateful enough for the gesture that they did not launch any further assaults. The enemy soldiers forded the river, with their commander standing on the Danubian bank, watching his men complete their retreat. The five final Danubian prisoners were left on the northern shore with their hands tied. As soon as the last of the defeated troops crossed, the enemy commander concluded the withdrawal by shooting himself in the head. He didn’t have much choice: had he crossed back into the Kingdom of the Moon, it was likely he would have been arrested and impaled as soon as the Lord of the Blue Moon was made aware of the defeat.

Danka did not have the opportunity to see the final part of the battle and the release of the prisoners. There was a second casualty from Oana’s squad, a Nymph who had been injured in one of her shoulders by a musket-ball. It was fortunate the ball missed her collarbone, but there was a huge risk of bleeding and infection. Because Oana knew that Danka had medical training, she placed her in charge of the injured woman and allowed her to take Isauria as her messenger and assistant. For the entire day Isauria was frantically scouring the woods for herbs and keeping a pot of boiling water so her mistress could prepare disinfectant. The squad members crowded around as Danka sedated her companion, removed the musket-ball, cleaned out the wound, applied her improvised disinfectant, and did what she could to prevent excessive bleeding. She fed the patient a weird mold solution which, to everyone’s surprise, actually worked. Within three days it was apparent Oana’s squad member would survive, recover, and eventually return to service, although she’d have a nasty scar on her chest for the rest of her existence in the Realm of the Living.

* * *

Fall was quickly approaching, which meant the end to fighting for the year. Commander Sáupeckt released his temporary troops to their permanent units and the focus of his unit’s activities would be surviving the winter. The majority of the Defenders of the Duchy would pull back from the border and return to their main winter quarters to rest, repair their weapons and build new ones, and train for the following year’s battles.

Before departing from the conflict zone, the Defenders converged on the largest of the three villages to bury their dead, organize captured weapons, feast, and celebrate their victory. The village included a cemetery containing hundreds of recent graves. The question of how such a small settlement could have so many dead was easily answered when Danka saw 77 new graves and 77 corpses ready to fill them. The recent battle had been particularly bloody: a tenth of the Defenders participating in it had been killed and another tenth had been wounded and were recovering. Each squad was responsible for the funeral of its own casualties: there was not enough time for all the Defenders to honor everyone who was being buried.

Oana’s squad had to bury the woman who had been killed in front of Danka. The squad’s newest member had to accept the fact she was indirectly responsible for her death, because it was the attack on the logging camp that provoked the Lord of the Blue Moon’s troops to invade and attempt to destroy the villages. Oana emphasized that point by ordering Danka to place a mirror in the corpse’s hands, which she would hold up before the Creator when facing judgment in the Afterlife.

Danka tried to push aside the guilt by justifying to herself what had happened. Yes, the villages had been attacked, but wasn’t that inevitable anyway? And… didn’t the Defenders win? Weren’t the settlements even safer than they had been before? And… hadn’t she been the one to save another of her companions by successfully operating on her? Hadn’t she fought bravely and killed several of the enemy? So… there was nothing for her to feel guilty about. She had more than redeemed herself. And yet… as she looked at her dead companion for the last time, a young peasant woman whose time in the Realm of the Living had been cut short, Danka could not completely suppress her feelings of remorse. She didn’t feel any guilt about the Kingdom of the Moon’s troops, but she did feel bad about her Danubian companion.

When Oana’s squad left the cemetery to bathe and indulge themselves in a spiritual cleansing ceremony, they passed the village square, which contained an enormous funeral pyre built to dispose of the Kingdom of the Moon’s casualties. There were more than a hundred enemy corpses piled in the square, plus dozens of severed heads taken from enemy bodies that had been killed too far from the villages to be transported intact.

The respect given to the Danubian dead was totally lacking for the enemy corpses. As the villagers and lower-ranking men among the Defenders prepared the funeral pyre, the local children curiously poked at the heads, jammed sticks into their eyes, and rolled them around in the dirt. No one faulted the children for their disrespect: had the Defenders lost and had those kids been captured, they would have been impaled by the men who were now lying dead, most likely in front of their mothers.

Oana’s squad-members found a safe place to stash their weapons and clothing and, like all of the women among the Defenders, completely stripped in anticipation of the upcoming ceremony. It was the role of the women to dance in honor of the Destroyer while the men stoked the pyre with corpses. It was the first time that Danka fully understood she and her companions were indeed dancing to honor the Destroyer, not the Creator, nor the Ancients. Oana noted the worry and doubt in her recruit’s face concerning doing anything to honor “the Profane One”. Danka had been a Follower of the Ancients, so her hostility towards the Destroyer would be especially intense. Oana took Danka aside while the other women indulged in ale to prepare themselves for the dance.

“Everything you see here, and everything that we’ve accomplished, is because the Destroyer helped us. This is war, and it was the Destroyer who brought war to the Realm of the Living. To honor the Creator for this victory would be like thanking the village potter for a sword given to you by the village blacksmith.”

“But… the Grand Duke… he conducted war… I was with him in Hórkustk Ris… Sumy Ris… Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt… and he… never honored the Destroyer.”

“I wouldn’t know about that. I never met His Majesty. I can only tell you that here - we are honest with ourselves and the spirit who determines our Path in Life. That spirit is the Destroyer.”

“I’m not going to submit to the Profane One. I will not…”

“Oh yes you will. You already have. The Destroyer owns you, just like the Destroyer owns me and everyone else in this campaign. We have to honor the Destroyer and serve the Destroyer. If we don’t, the Destroyer will simply find someone else to serve the cause of destruction, and instead of us destroying the lives of others, we will be destroyed. And if that happens, the Duchy will be destroyed. No one is asking you to love the Destroyer. The Destroyer cannot be loved because the Destroyer will never bring you any joy. But as a Nymph and a member of my squad, you must honor the Destroyer. We all must. It is our Path in Life.”

“But… what about… what about when we hold up our mirror before the Creator? How can we justify…”

“We can’t justify any of our actions before the Creator. We will suffer for what we’ve done. I’ve already told you the Destroyer brings no joy, and that will be true many times over after our souls separate from our bodies. But that is our Path in Life. At least we’re being honest about it. Most people spend their time in the Realm of the Living serving the Destroyer simply for their own pleasure, but are not honest about it at all, not even to themselves.”

Danka said nothing more. She and Isauria joined the other naked Nymphs as they knelt in front of the funeral pyre. While it was being lit, the poorly dressed Priest gave thanks to the Destroyer. The women responded to each of his lines with a wailing chant. When the burning of the bodies got underway, dozens of women and girls began dancing while the drummers and flutists played in the dark. Nymphs and villagers, young and old, mothers and daughters, danced for hours as the fire illuminated their bare sweaty figures and the sinister drums beat in celebration of death. The destruction of the foreigners’ bodies took hours as the smell of burning flesh permeated the entire area. After all the corpses were burnt, the exhausted Defenders remembered the pile of severed heads and tossed them into the pyre as an afterthought.

The burning, dancing, and chanting continued throughout the night. Danka was disgusted with herself as she joined the others dancing with her uncovered body and singing with her exhausted voice. So… the Destroyer had won after all. She should have known that it was the Destroyer who had laid out her destiny… her Path in Life. The Destroyer had taken the trouble to visit her and tell her that reality many times over, but she had refused to believe it. The Ancients were nowhere in sight. Like everyone else in the Realm of the Living, the Ancients had forsaken her.

* * *

Before departing for the winter headquarters, the Defenders bathed in preparation for the journey that lay ahead. For the women, bathing included cleaning and re-braiding their hair. Normally Danka tasked Isauria with arranging her braids. However, while she and her slave were relaxing in the water, Oana came up to Danka and dismissed the adolescent. Oana would wash and braid her hair with the new recruit, which was an honor considering that Danka had been under her command for only a few weeks.

As they washed each other’s hair, the two women talked about the recent fighting, the squad member who had been killed, and Danka’s medical training. Oana provided Danka with some additional details of the history of the southern border, describing how the Defenders had organized in 1752 in anticipation of the growing conflict in neighboring Hórkustk Ris province. As they talked, Danka was able to update and correct some of Oana’s information about the siege of the city and its subsequent destruction.

Eventually the squad leader moved to the topic she needed to discuss with Danka: the fact she owned a slave and that slavery was prohibited among the Defenders of the Duchy. Danka responded by explaining why she had taken ownership of Isauria and that it was not her intention to keep her collared indefinitely.

“Then you should be very happy to hear that we have a blacksmith who knows how to remove slave collars. Your servant cannot keep her collar in the winter camp. Within a day of our return, I expect you to take your girl to the blacksmith and get the collar off her neck. What you decide to tell her about it will be up to you.”

Danka thought about how to explain de-collaring to her servant. Finally she decided the best way to handle Isauria’s situation would be to formally emancipate her.

“I’d like for her to pay me for her slave-owner’s certificate, to purchase her freedom. I’ll take my name off the paper and put hers on it. Then she’ll own herself and no one will be able to challenge the legality of her freedom.”

“Does she have any money?”

“No, of course she doesn’t. Until a month ago, I didn’t have any money. Now I do… some silver and copper from the loggers.”

“Then here’s a thought. Why don’t you give me the money she’ll need to purchase her certificate? I’ll pay her for her service over the past month plus her wages for next year, and then she can pay you to purchase herself.”

“Pay you… to pay her… to pay me…”


“But I did spend three-and-a-half gold to buy her. That was my own money… it was all I had… from a property title I sold.”

“And, as I understand, you’ve since earned it back. Or at least most of it. So there’s no problem…”

“No. I suppose there’s no problem.”

“Then give me all your coins. I’ll borrow whatever’s missing from the commander. You’ll have your part of the money returned when you surrender your servant’s paper.”

When Oana finished braiding Danka’s hair, the two women emerged from the water and dried each other’s bodies. Danka then retrieved her coin-purse and emptied out the stash of coins taken from the logging camp. There were 14 silver pieces and 18 copper coins altogether. She handed them to her commander. Thus, she had to give up any hope of somehow recovering part of the gold she had originally invested in Isauria when she purchased her.

* * *

For the trip into the mountains, Oana temporarily returned Danka’s donkey to use as a pack animal. Danka and Isauria loaded all of their weapons and campaign supplies onto the beast. Danka decided to allow the girl to ride as well, given that she was not very heavy and there was no point wearing her out unnecessarily. So, the quiet dark-haired servant rode perched on top of the animal while Danka took turns leading him with another member of her squad. As her squad’s new recruit, Danka remained naked, even though the weather no longer was suited for being undressed. Although in the fall it was customary for Nymphs to wear capes, Oana and the other squad members remained topless. They did so in solidarity with their newest companion, since by custom Danka would not be able to get dressed until she had arrived at the winter encampment.

Chilly breezes whipped around the long column of Defenders when they left the settlements and traveled upstream towards their seasonal destination. As she walked and shivered in the increasingly cold air, Danka had the consolation of knowing where and how she and Isauria would spend the winter. They would be in a warm, safe place with plenty to eat. However, the independent life she had hoped for would elude her. Her existence would revolve around the needs of Oana and the other Nymphs, preparing for the next summer’s campaign… and, of course, the whims of the Destroyer.

The settlement turned out to be more comfortable than Danka had anticipated. At first glance it appeared to be very little: nothing more than some obscure huts scattered around a wooded hillside. However, the huts were spread over a large area, some of which had hidden passageways in their floors. The tunnels lead to a large natural cave, in which the Defenders kept their weapons, food, supplies, and records. The cave’s temperature was constant throughout the year: it was cold inside but never close to freezing. Best of all, the stream that had formed the cavern provided the Defenders a steady and unlimited supply of pure water. The Defenders did not actually live in the cave, because they knew that too many occupants at a time would spoil the air inside. However, as a place to safeguard their food and belongings, the cavern served the militia much better than any man-made structure.

Danka reported to the squad’s bunkhouse and selected a bunk large enough to accommodate both herself and her ward. There was nothing unusual about the arrangement, since most of the Nymphs had a sleeping partner to conserve warmth during cold weather. They would be fairly comfortable over the winter: instead of sharing a cramped bedroll on hard ground, they’d be sleeping on a real mattress with real blankets. Isauria made the bed on the assumption she’d be sharing it with Danka.

Oana showed up at the door and directed Danka to go into the cave, find her belongings, and retrieve Isauria’s slave certificate. To her enormous relief, her bucket and its contents were intact, including the Merchants’ Guild collar, her writings and notes, and her supply of blue powder and birth-control paste. Oh yes… birth control paste. She’d need that for herself, because with all the young men running around, it was inevitable that she’d have a sexual relationship with at least one of them. Equally important would be her ability to supply her fellow squad-members with the paste. Babies were not welcome intruders in the lives of Oana’s squad, so anything that could safely prevent them would be very welcome among her peers.

When Danka emerged with the paper, she saw her squad leader talking to Isauria and handing her a bag of coins. The girl looked very nervous at the thought of holding so much money. Oana gave Danka a look clearly signaling that she needed to resolve Isauria’s slavery situation immediately. She exchanged salutes with the girl and walked towards the blacksmith’s hut.

Danka approached her servant and handed her the paper.

“Servant Isauria, do you know what this paper is?”

“Yes, Mistress Danka. It’s… the proof… the proof that you own me.”

“Well, in a moment it’s going to be yours. The only owner you will have will be yourself. Oana paid your wages, and you’ll use that money to buy yourself from me.”

“You… don’t want me… as your servant, Mistress?”

“No. I never wanted you as my servant. I only bought you to take you away from Master Nowáckt. He dishonored himself with his treatment of you, and I wanted to put a stop to it before I left Alexándrekt Buláshckt’s house. The only way I could do that was to take you with me, and the only way I could take you with me was to buy you. So, that’s what I did. Now, you have the money to pay me back. As soon as that happens, you’ll receive your certificate and I’ll take you to the blacksmith to remove your collar. Then, you’ll be just like anyone else in the Duchy.”

Danka paused and continued: “Actually, you won’t really be free, not in the way I was hoping. We’ve both been drafted into the militia and you’ll be under Oana’s command. That’s why she paid you for service you have not yet performed. I’m just a member of her squad. You’re just a member of her squad. That’ll be our Path in Life until Commander Sáupeckt releases us… or, until we’re killed in battle.”

Isauria didn’t know how to respond. It was obvious she was not at all happy about being emancipated, that in fact she was extremely scared. She was used to being Danka’s ward, used to following Danka’s orders, and used to living under Danka’s protection. She had her assigned place in society and really had not given much thought about the future. The idea of living alone in a country she still considered enemy territory totally frightened her. Danka realized she needed to reassure her.

“Obviously you’re a bit young to be on your own; although I was just a couple of years older then you are when I started my travels. I’d imagine you’ll join the squad as an apprentice, and I’ll be the one responsible for training you. So… I’m not completely done dealing with you, Apprentice Isauria. Apprentice Isauria. That’s now your title, and it’s what I’ll be calling you. My title is different as well. I’m now a Defender of the Duchy, so you’ll call me Defender Síluckt.”

Danka led her servant to the blacksmith’s hut, which was one of the few structures in the area made from stone instead of wood. Commander Sáupeckt, the ragged Priest, a scribe, Oana, and three squad members were waiting for her. The blacksmith directed Isauria to lie on a table that had a vice at one end. He positioned her so that her collar could be clamped into the vice, examined the latch and locking mechanism, and selected a metal punch he would drive into the latch to break it. He tapped the punch several times with a hammer, pried at it, and slipped a thin wedge into a narrow opening that he had created in the collar. Two more taps of the hammer, more prying, and the device opened up. Isauria sat up and with her fingertips explored her newly exposed neck, which was stained from the collar’s metal. The blacksmith tossed the broken collar onto a pile of scrap iron.

The scribe laid out Isauria’s original slave bill-of-sale and added a line that Isauria had paid 35 silver pieces (the equivalent of three-and-a-half gold) to purchase her freedom from the peasant Danka Síluckt. Oana ordered Isauria to hand over 35 silver coins and Danka to count them in front of everyone present. Isauria and Danka signed the certificate, with Danka’s commander, squad leader, and three Nymphs signing as official witnesses. The scribe had prepared a copy of the transaction for the Defenders’ permanent records, which everyone present had to sign before it was stamped. To make absolutely sure there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Danka was surrendering her claim of ownership over Isauria, she had to kneel before the Priest and swear that she had accepted the coins as payment for Isauria’s slave certificate.

Danka later found out that Oana had made the emancipation arrangement to obligate not only her, but also Isauria, into years of service. The Nymphs received a silver piece for each month they served, which was a respectable wage for a lower-class Danubian, especially a woman. Isauria’s sale price was the equivalent of 35 silver pieces, paid in advance so she could purchase her slave certificate. The arrangement forced her to borrow the money against her future earnings, obligating her to remain with the Defenders for 35 months until the debt was paid off. A detail left out of the written agreement was that Danka would only keep 16 of the silver coins. The rest would have to be returned to her squad leader, who in turn would return them to the encampment’s paymaster.

When Danka left the blacksmith’s hut, Isauria followed her, unsure what else she should do. Oana carefully observed the girl’s behavior to determine whether to leave her with her former mistress or to appoint her as an apprentice directly under her command. Collar or no collar, it seemed Isauria felt more comfortable staying with Danka. So, at least for the time-being, Danka would remain more in charge of Isauria than anyone else.

* * *

By October 1, the weather was cold enough that remaining naked was no longer and option for any of the Defenders. Therefore, Oana ordered Danka and Isauria to pick up their winter uniforms, which consisted of a wool tunic and trousers. As much as she was used to running around in the nude, Danka was very happy to finally be protect herself from the elements and the increasingly frigid nights.

The Defenders passed October hauling in food and preparing it for preservation over the winter. As newcomers, Danka and Isauria had to report to the cooks to assist in meal preparation, to learn the process of food preservation, and to share any new ideas or recipes. The cooks were very interested in Danka’s knowledge of spices and herbs, some of which they previously had not known. They instructed the newcomers to find and bring in samples, so Danka and Isauria spent much of October foraging, which was fine with them. It was much better to be wandering the woods than to be stuck in a smoke-filled kitchen.

Danka and Isauria rarely foraged in the woods alone. Usually one or more of Oana’s other squad members accompanied them to learn what Danka could teach about finding roots and mushrooms. Whenever they were near a stream or pond, the women relaxed while Isauria fished. Danka put forth the effort to know and get along with her peers.

Many of Oana’s squad members were from the Vice Duchy of Rika Chorna, so they were able to provide Danka with information about a region which she had never seen and was still a mystery to her. For a woman who had lived independently, the new information did not make Rika Chorna sound appealing. It seemed that women in the eastern valley did not have nearly as much freedom or as many rights as women in the western valley. For example, women could not purchase property, only inherit it, and even then they could inherit land only if a close male relative was not available as an heir. The entire region was loyal to the True Believer faction of the Danubian Church, so women’s access to the Priesthood was as restricted as their access to property. Priestesses did exist in the eastern valley, but they only held moral authority over other women and were required to lead lives of celibacy. Priests were married, but never to Priestesses. Marriage restrictions for young women were even more restricted in the east than in the west. Two of Danka's peers openly admitted they had willingly joined the Defenders to escape the restrained existence they would have endured had they stayed behind in their villages.

After hearing descriptions of the Vice Duchy, Danka started to have real doubts about going there with Isauria and trying to settle. She was actually glad her journey had been interrupted. As bad as military service might be, for the time being it seemed the least onerous of her options. She didn’t want to return to any of the places she already had visited in the west, but her goal of going east did not seem any better. At least among the Defenders she was respected and would be treated according to how well she performed her duties. So for the time-being she was not tempted to desert, it was just easier to stay where she was.

* * *

The relationship between Danka and Isauria changed after the girl’s collar was taken off. Danka had never really thought of Isauria as being her property: she treated her more as though she were a troublesome younger sister or niece. However, while she was collared, Isauria viewed Danka as her owner and herself as purchased, and thus less than human. As the fall progressed and Isauria became used to not having a collar on her neck, she started treating her former mistress as she would treat an older relative. Everyone accepted that the girl’s education and training remained Danka’s responsibility. She was much more responsive around her mentor than she was around anyone else, preferring to follow her around whenever she had the opportunity. Danka increasingly appreciated having the girl as her companion and looked forward to teaching her more of what she knew about life. Isauria was competent in the forest and could handle weapons, but there was plenty more that she needed to learn. Now that traveling and survival had ceased taking up all their time, Danka had opportunity to teach her ward the basics of alchemy, simple surgical procedures, mathematics, and even dining etiquette.

It helped that by the end of the year Isauria’s ability to speak Danubian had greatly improved, which gave her confidence talking to people and made her less shy. It was good to see her open up. It also helped that her hair was growing out nicely, so every passing week she came closer to the appearance considered proper for an adolescent girl in Danubian society. Danka noticed yet another detail; that Isauria had grown over the past six months. The top of the girl’s head came up to Danka’s nose by the first snowfall. Another year… it was likely she’d be Danka’s height, or perhaps even taller. Danka had to give up thinking of Isauria as “little”.

Commander Sáupeckt brought a peasant woman to Oana’s hut during the first week of November. She had been recruited along with several male debtors fleeing a money lender in the eastern town of Novo Sókukt Tók. The new arrival meant that Danka no longer was the newest member of her squad. By that time Danka was a fully accepted member of Oana’s group anyway, having proved herself with not only her crossbow, but also with her contribution to the group’s knowledge about foraging. As she had anticipated, her birth-control paste recipe made her even more popular among her peers than her food-gathering skills.

The women spent their days at target practice, negotiating obstacle courses, practicing drills in the woods, and practicing sword fighting with the men. They also practiced making cartridges and shooting with captured enemy muskets, in case they ever had to fight using conventional instead of traditional weapons. The women practiced moving in formation and covering each other for both advancing and retreating. As Oana explained to both Danka and the new woman, “The Kingdom of the Moon soldiers have a major flaw in their strategy. They like to fight by overwhelming the enemy and pushing forward all the time. They’re brave, too much for their own good. They consider it dishonorable and treasonous to retreat, so they don’t normally pull back, no matter how badly things are going for them. You’ve already seen what happens when a commander does have to order a retreat: he’s expected to kill himself. We, whether it’s the Grand Duke’s Protectors or the Defenders of the Duchy, have no problem moving in any direction. If we have to pull back, we do. So you have a large enemy moving in only one direction fighting a smaller enemy who can move in any direction. The only objective for them is winning. The first objective for us is staying alive to keep fighting.”

In spite of the Defenders’ emphasis on mobility, Oana noted that the Danubian strategy relied on being behind concealment and cover, always. As she put it: “The day we expose ourselves to a musket volley, even once, will be the day we lose the battle, and probably the entire campaign. So, that’s our weakness. We can’t fight in the open.”

Because she was younger, Isauria practiced hand-to-hand combat with some adolescent boys serving under various squads as apprentices. As she hung out with the boys, singing war songs and sitting with them at campfires, Isauria slowly began to talk to people besides Danka. At the beginning, when dealing with Danubian boys she was troubled by memories of her former master Nowáckt. However, the Defender apprentices treated her well from the day she was introduced to them. In spite of being foreign-born and a former slave, the boys admired her and accepted her as part of their group when they found out she already had killed two men with a sword and helped kill two dozen others with a crossbow.

* * *

Danka’s birth-control paste transformed the lives of the Nymphs in Oana’s squad. Prior to Danka’s arrival, pregnancies were a major concern among the women. Oana responded by trying to impose a regimen of celibacy among her subordinates. Any member of her squad caught having sex with one of the men was publicly stripped and faced a severe switching on her bottom and thighs. Punished offenders endured being naked (or bottomless during the winter) for several days until the welts faded, so the encampment could see the results of their whipping and their shame. The squad members spent much of their idle time trying to time their menstruations and having affairs behind their leader’s back. As soon as she was convinced Danka’s paste actually worked, Oana lifted the prohibition and the ongoing conflict within the squad abruptly ended. Every woman in the squad immediately found a male partner.

Oana seduced Commander Sáupeckt and became his lover, in spite of the fact he had a wife and children. During one of her foraging trips with Isauria, Danka stumbled across her commanders in a small clearing. The air was too cold to undress completely, but both had taken off their trousers. Oana was bent over a fallen log in the submissive position, while the commander was fondling and slapping her bottom. Finally he slipped his fingers between her legs, while using his free hand to stimulate himself. When both were ready, he entered her. He was surprisingly gentle, but Danka wondered if that was because of his age as opposed to any feelings of tenderness towards his subordinate.

Danka glanced at Isauria, who stared at the commanders with a transfixed expression. She was amused, more than anything else, that Isauria’s first real introduction to sex would be watching her commanders, a woman in her mid-30s and a man in his mid-50’s, having a tryst in the woods. She had no intention of pulling Isauria away or trying to “protect her innocence”. The girl needed to grow up quickly, so there was no point in keeping any of life’s secrets from her. She’s bound to learn about it anyway, so it’s better that it’s sooner than later…

Anyhow, Danka was no moral purist. She had known about the “facts of life” from a very early age, because it was hard for parents living in a single-room hovel to hide anything from their children. The elder Síluckts didn’t even bother to try. Besides her parents, Danka had witnessed various neighbors having liaisons during her wanderings around the laborers’ settlement as she was growing up. There was no curiosity about sex from Danka… no mystery that she wanted to resolve. The encounters disgusted her more than anything else, which was part of the reason her virginity was still intact when her hair was braided.

As soon as the commanders finished, Danka and her apprentice slipped away. The girl’s face was full of bewildered questions. Danka commented, “It’s the same with your father’s sheep, wouldn’t you agree, Apprentice?”

“Yes, Defender Síluckt.”

“There are other positions. A lot of them. Try to avoid using that one… the position you just saw. It’s the ‘submissive’ position, when you’re admitting the man is superior to you. Whether or not that is true, it’s best not to admit it.”

“I… I don’t understand, Defender…”

“I don’t really know how to explain it… but life is all about fighting for control. Do you control, or does the other person control you? If you use the submissive position for sex, you’re giving up control over your body. I suppose that’s acceptable if you give yourself to a man who truly loves you. But thinking a man truly loves you, and that love being real… well… the Realm of the Living and the Realm of Fantasy are two very different places.”

Danka could see that Isauria was more confused than ever.

“Listen. Just try to avoid using the submissive position. Try to avoid getting pregnant. Put off having sex as long as you can. And never… ever… try to ‘reward’ a man by letting him use your body. That’s what you need to know for now. And there’s one more thing. I know how to prevent the moon from paying you a visit. At your age… you don’t want the moon to visit you.”

Danka decided that the time had come to educate Isauria about birth control. She spent the rest of the afternoon teaching her how to prepare and use the paste, and also how babies were formed in the womb. Isauria came from a different culture than Danka, a culture in which sex was a dark and sinful secret, and people were amazingly ignorant about the topic. By learning about sex and birth control well before being ready to marry, Isauria was making an important break with her family’s values and the culture in which she had been raised.

Danka thought about her own options as she looked around at the men in the camp. She was desperate for sex, but unable to make up her mind what kind of lover she wanted. She liked the attractiveness and vigor of younger men, but they quickly bored her because she did not find young men intellectually challenging. She preferred the intellect and experience of older men, but older men had their own faults, vices, and problems. To avoid having to settle on a permanent partner, she was tempted to have sex with any man who was interested in her, like she had done at the university in Sebérnekt Ris. However, by the end of 1756 she had matured enough to realize the militia was not the university, and the community of the Defenders was very different from the one created by the Followers. Being promiscuous would compromise her honor, threaten her reputation in the Defenders’ community, and possibly cause conflict among the men. She did not want to risk her standing among her peers. She was respected and well-liked throughout the encampment, even more so than when she had been with the Followers of the Ancients.

Perhaps it was pure hubris, but she enjoyed being respected and well-liked.

Historian's Note: Throughout the 1750s, the central and eastern portion of the border between the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia and the Kingdom of the Moon suffered from continuous combat. However, the fighting differed significantly from the Grand Duke’s campaign to the west in Hórkustk Ris. Instead of a large army defending the Duchy against another large army, the fighting to the east involved much smaller units skirmishing over much smaller objectives. The conflict was not over the fate of the Duchy, but over small sections of the border and the foreigners’ desire to access natural resources located in Danubian territory. Instead of regular troops, semi-independent militias loosely united under the title “Defenders of the Duchy” launched quick small-scale raids against intruders. Almost all militia operations followed a general pattern: the area commander identified a group of combatants from the Kingdom of the Moon that were either in the Duchy or likely to cross the border, goad them to enter an area that favored Danubian fighting techniques, then launch an ambush. If the enemy was forced to withdraw upon the first ambush, there would be a follow-up ambush to inflict as many casualties as possible. If the ambush was inconclusive or likely to result in a defeat, the Danubians withdrew to launch a new effort to goad the enemy into another ambush in a more favorable location.

Usually the objective was not to protect territory, but to inflict as many casualties as possible to sap the enemy’s desire to cross into the Duchy and threaten Danubians. The militia leaders carefully selected targets to ensure either victory or minimal losses. They also wanted to send a clear message to both Lords’ warring factions through their selection of places where fighting took place. The Danubians focused exclusively on military targets they considered were directly threatening the Duchy. The Defenders did frequently conduct raids across the border, but the objectives were always units that were about to cross into the Duchy, or men who had returned from the Duchy to be re-supplied. Unlike the Kingdom of the Moon factions, the Danubians left the civilian population alone.

The strategy had a long-term focus: to demoralize the Kingdom of the Moon’s fighting men. The men became well-aware that the Danubians were not a threat if citizens of the Kingdom of the Moon stayed on their side of the border. As soon as the foreigners crossed or prepared to cross, they could expect to be attacked. Over time the enemy soldiers would view what they were doing in the Duchy as unnecessary and futile, although in 1756 the morale of the invaders had not yet deteriorated to the point the men would dare challenge their commanders. The first large mutiny among the Lord of the Blue Moon’s men would not happen until 1758.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

End of part 7

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