The Girl with No Name
by EC


Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

Chapter Thirty-Two – The Benefactor

The harvest was as pitiful as everything else about the children's destitute farm. Even with Vesna’s late-summer efforts to salvage the garden, its produce would have been barely enough to feed the occupants for a month. So… the failed harvest meant several trips to the market to purchase food for the winter, along with supplies needed for preserving vegetables, hay for Moonlight, and seeds to plant next year. Vesna was not surprised to spend most of her remaining silver on ensuring her hosts’ survival over the winter. After all, not having any wealth seemed to be her Path in Life.

She spent September and October organizing the harvest and teaching the children what she knew about preserving food and preparing the ground for planting the following spring. She tore down the chimney and built a new one with a better design that heated the house more efficiently and was not a fire hazard. She had to build a stable for her horse, using the boards from the pigsty and some of the fencing.

Vesna visited to the bookseller in Plátnackt Dék several times during the autumn to obtain information about the road repair and the flooded mine. As she suspected, the road was not repaired, even after the first snow fell in the mountains. During her final visit in October she bought a piece of slate, chalk, quills and an inkwell, and paper. When Vesna and the children were driven indoors by the first snowfall in November, she announced how she planned to spend the winter: everyone in the household would learn to read and write.

So, Vesna spent the next five months cooped up with six children, teaching them writing and basic math. She taught them to sing hymns and campfire songs and how to pray to the Lord-Creator. She would have preferred to teach them to pray to the Ancients, but knew in the Vice-Duchy indoctrinating them as Followers would put their lives at risk. She entertained them with stories of her travels and her adventures during the wars of 1754 and 1758. She talked a lot about her year in the forest with the Followers and her studies at the university. She even talked about her time in the Grand Duke’s castle, but omitted the detail of performing sexual favors for the Sovereign.

She realized she was good at story-telling. She also learned about handling children. Margíckta was intimidated by Vesna, but at the same time deeply admired her. The girl matured over the winter and realized she had more potential than spending the final year of her life as a starving prostitute. Vesna talked to Margíckta and the younger girls at length about her experiences as a woman and what she knew about relationships with men. She talked to the boys about the various men she knew and what made some better than others. She explained about guilds and the military and about the rich and poor. By the end of the winter the older children had a fairly good grasp of the way the Realm of the Living worked. The younger children understood less, but perhaps in the future they’d know what questions they needed to ask.

When the spring of 1760 arrived, Vesna had to spend less time on lessons and more time worrying about the farm. She kept the children busy with spring planting. She returned to the marketplace to buy several piglets and hens to re-stock the chicken coop. When the owner of an adjacent farm died and the widow told Vesna she needed to sell a portion of the property, Vesna bought the land with five of her remaining pieces of silver. She had to buy more seed to plant in the new section, but she knew if the harvest went well, there would easily be enough food for the following winter, plus some extra produce to exchange in the market for cheese and tools.

By the beginning of May she had only four coins from the original fifty she had taken from Rika Chorna. She knew what she needed to do with her remaining silver. After the May-Day celebration she braided Margíckta’s hair. She then took the girl to a tailor in Plátnackt Dék to have her fitted for a dress. The girl was speechless as Vesna tied the yellow sash around her companion's waist, indicating she was available for marriage. Vesna struggled to hold back tears as the traumatic memory of her own failed effort to buy a dress forced itself into her thoughts. She was afraid to speak and let the girl hear her voice crack from emotion, so she tapped Margíckta and directed her to the church to obtain a citizenship certificate. She exchanged the last of her coins for the parchment and seal.

The two women, one wearing a new courting dress and the other wearing a simple working outfit, left the church. Margíckta still didn't know what to say to Vesna.

As they exited the plaza into the marketplace, they passed the town’s pillory. Vesna stopped to examine one of the ankle-chains. She ran her fingertips over the links and opened the metal cuff. She turned to her companion.

“You know, I spent a day on the pillory, a few years ago.”

“You, Mistress Vesna?”

“Yes. I spent a day on the pillory because I wanted a dress so I could look for a husband. I was just like you, just as desperate, and just as willing to do stupid things. To pay for the dress, I stole apples... from a farmer. He had me arrested, but then he repented and saved my life. So, you're not the only one. I know what it is to be poor and not have a dress.”

"But... last fall... you did have money, Mistress Vesna. Why didn't you...?"

"It wasn't my Path in Life. It just wasn't. So I never bought the dress... at least not for myself. Instead, I bought it for you."

“I don’t know what to say, Mistress Vesna… how to thank you.”

“I don’t want you to thank me. Words don’t mean anything. What matters is what you do with your time in the Realm of the Living, not what you say about it. The only way you can thank me is to find a decent husband and lead a decent life. The neighbor boy two farms from yours… what about him? He seems nice.”

“Yes, Mistress Vesna. I was thinking about him.”

“Certainly he’d be better than what you were thinking about doing last year, don’t you agree?”

Margíckta blushed and nodded.

* * *

Vesna spent some of her spare time exercising her horse and preparing him for traveling. She still hoped to return to the western valley before the end of the summer. The road was clear and the marauding workers had gone back into their mine, so the danger was greatly reduced, although not completely eliminated.

As she thought about her plan to return to the western valley, Vesna watched with rising hopes as the neighbor courted Margíckta. If he married her and moved to the farm, the children would become the young couple’s responsibility and she’d be free to leave. Unfortunately, because protocol required several months of courtship before marriage, it was unlikely Margíckta would marry in time for Vesna to make it through the mountains before the first snow. Maybe that wasn’t so bad. There were worse places she could spend a year than a farm with a bunch of kids. She fervently prayed to the Ancients for an answer to her question: Should she stay another year at the farm or try to figure out how to make the children independent enough so she could leave?

The answer to her prayers came in late June, the day after the summer solstice. A ragged, wretched-looking man showed up on the property. Vesna ran into the house to grab her crossbow and make him leave, but when she went back out, she saw the children gathered around him, hugging him. He was Tanélickt’s son; the prospector everyone thought had died the previous year.

At first the man was extremely happy to see the farm and his children in such good condition. That happiness vanished when he found out his father, his wife, and his sister were dead. He ate a quiet dinner, thinking about his failed excursion in the mountains and the loss of his relatives during his absence. He had been irresponsible in his desperation to find silver, but it was his family that suffered as the result.

Vesna consoled him with hard logic. “Well, the only way you can redeem yourself is to stay here and take care of your kids. You have a nice farm if you work the land, and I’ve taught the children how to do that. Margíckta is courting right now, so her Path in Life looks good. What happens to the others is up to you. You’re the father.”

“I… don’t know… how to thank you for what you’ve done.”

“In a way, you’ve already thanked me. I prayed for an answer to my question about leaving the Vice-Duchy before the end of the summer. I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to abandon the kids or leave before Margíckta got married. You’re back, so now I can resume my Path in Life of wandering. You can thank me every day by making sure this farm is a safe place to live and feed your children. That’s all I’m asking of you.”

As Vesna prepared to resume her journey, her host realized he could partially return the huge favor she had done for his family. He knew the mine region very well, so he told her about the various paths and lanes traversing the area, emphasizing the ones that were the safest and the ones that were the easiest to move through on a horse. She marked various locations on her map as she listened to his advice. Vesna finally had the knowledge she needed to successfully make the voyage to Sevérckt nad Gorádki.

* * *

Vesna rode to Plátnackt Dék wearing her worker’s dress. She spent the short summer night exchanging information with the map-maker. He gave her a parting gift, a small compass. Shortly before sunrise she changed into her guard outfit and left the town.

She rode though a region of impoverished farming homesteads. As the terrain became steeper she passed through sheep pastures. The road became steeper and narrower as it traversed a series of rocky hills that divided the settled area from the forest. The only people she saw along the road were miners hauling ore or workers taking up supplies. Following her map and the advice of Tanélickt’s son, she left the main road and followed a side trail. She camped briefly before resuming her journey at daybreak. Towards the end of the day she came across a small meadow where Moonlight could graze. She decided not to go any further that day. Instead, she stripped off her clothing and spent her time praying to the Ancients for guidance.

She spent the following six weeks slowly traveling west. During that entire time she did not see another human. She had to stop to hunt and gather mushrooms and berries while letting Moonlight browse. During much of the journey she walked, and whenever she walked, she was naked, according to the custom of the Followers. She didn’t have to think about anything apart from day-to-day survival and making sure she was going in the right direction. She was alone and independent, not having to please anyone except herself and the Ancients who continued to protect her and guide her journey. For the first time she did not have to meet anyone’s expectations. All she had to do was keep moving at a pace of her own choosing.

If surviving in the mountains during the winter not been a concern, Vesna would have been content to spend the rest of her time in the Realm of the Living traveling through the forest and avoiding contact with other people. However, she noticed the days already were becoming shorter and the nights longer. Occasionally there was a hint of chill in the air to remind her the summer would not last much longer and she would have to leave her temporary paradise.

After several weeks of navigating the trails, she was able to see cleared flat farmland in the distance whenever she was at a vantage point that offered her a view to the west. She knew she was looking at the western valley, meaning she had escaped from the Vice-Duchy. The area around her was starting to look familiar. The path led into a wider lane. She looked through the trees and saw a wagon crew hauling a load of cave-charcoal. Yes, she knew exactly where she was, she was close to one of the Followers’ mines. The wagon crew members were not Followers, however. Vesna realized the mine must have been taken over by outsiders.

She avoided the road as she descended towards Sevérckt nad Gorádki. However, as she neared the grassy hills with the sheep pastures, she had no choice: she had to end her time alone in the Realm of Nature and re-enter civilization. She put on her guard’s clothing, but left off the helmet and the Vice-Duchy’s tunic. As always, she loaded her crossbow and was vigilant for trouble. She rode towards the town, taking the same route she had taken in the opposite direction nearly a decade before with the odious lover who had treated her so cruelly.

As she looked at the steeples and rooftops of Sevérckt nad Gorádki, she saw the familiar buildings, including the large house where she had lost her virginity and where her former lover Káloyankt was undoubtedly still living with his family. She had heard that he was doing well and that the town continued to prosper under his family's influence. However, she had no desire to see him. A visit from her would only disrupt the tranquility of his Path in Life. She’d not go into the town. Instead, she’d let her horse graze among the sheep and would continue traveling south the following day.

So… she had safely returned to the western valley. At sunset she took off her guard outfit and prayed to the Ancients. She thanked them for allowing her to escape the Vice Duchy, but what should she do now? Where should she go? What was her Path in Life? She had no home, no friends, no commitments, no commanders, no duties or promises to fulfill, and no purpose. She had no silver. She had nothing, except for a horse and a couple of weapons. What now?

When she stood up, she looked towards the south. Beyond Sevérckt nad Gorádki there was little except farms and orchards. There was Starívktaki Móskt, but she certainly didn’t want to go there. The only other place she could go to would be Gordnáckt Suyástenckt.

Of course… that’s where she could go. She’d visit her former mentor, the Priestess who had taught her to read. She’d have a place to stay and someone to give her advice until she figured out what to do. She got dressed the following morning and rode south. She moved quickly as Moonlight galloped and trotted along the lanes between the orchards. She reached her destination by the end of the week.

When she entered the church, Vesna knelt upright as she waited for the Priestess. She felt very strange because it would be the first time her former mentor would see her wearing clothing. She would have felt more at ease had she stripped and put on her penance collar, but she knew that part of her life had passed. Whatever the future held for her, she’d have to stop running around the Duchy pretending to be performing Public Penance.

The Priestess greeted her and told her to stand up. In the two years since Vesna's last visit she had aged and had added another child to her family, but her demeanor and her haughty way of carrying herself remained the same as always.

Vesna had to undergo ritual purification and confession, but since she no longer was performing Public Penance, the two women could talk to each other more as equals. After talking about the revenge against Oana and her participation in Enockt’s group of conspirators, the visitor explained her new identity and how she started using it in the eastern valley. The Priestess agreed it would be better for her to keep the new name and issued a citizenship certificate for Vesna Rogúskt from the Vice-Duchy of Rika Chorna.

Vesna stayed at the church for a week resting, cleaning her equipment, praying, and telling her host additional details about what she had learned in the Vice-Duchy. The two women wrote down Vesna’s observations about the region and a detailed account of the destruction of the True Believers’ cathedral in Sihídikti Ris. The Priestess later would send the information to the Great Temple so the Prophets could add the account to the archives of the Danubian Church.

The Priestess updated Vesna concerning news from the western half of the Duchy. She related that the Old Believers had taken over all of the parishes in the western valley. The only exception was the church in Rika Héckt-nemát. A decade after the plague, the city remained sealed-off and no one knew what was going on there or if any of its residents were even still living. The people from the neighboring towns were convinced the city was cursed, so no one dared to venture past the guards stationed to close off the road going in. Even talking about the city was considered a violation of protocol.

* * *

Vesna had entered Gordnáckt Suyástenckt assuming her former servant Isauria would not be there, that she had departed the previous summer to go to Sebérnekt Ris. She had indeed left to enroll in university. The Priestess let her visitor read a couple of Isauria's letters. She already completed her first year, was about to begin her second year, and seemed to be doing well as a student.

The Priestess detailed how she had spent the winter of 1758-1759 helping the girl transcribe all of her former mistress’s writings into university-quality reports, supplemented by books borrowed from the seminary’s library in neighboring Starívktaki Móskt. Isauria spent part of the winter at the old Temple doing her research and sitting in on some of the classes for the apprentices.

“Your former servant changed over the year she stayed with us. I don’t know if I could say she matured, but she did change. She likes the Realm of Fantasy and to write poems and stories about spirits and legends and tragic mysteries. The stories about you, the ones circulating around Starívktaki Móskt casting you as the evil seducer and murderer of poor Bagatúrckt, completely fascinated her. She spent her spare time talking to people and collecting those tales and writing them down, so she could convert them into poems and fiction. She likes to do that, take old stories, embellish them, and re-tell them. That’s something about her that doesn’t please me. I’ve told her the Destroyer enters the Realm of the Living through the mouth of the liar, but she wouldn’t heed my advice to only write truthful things about you.”

"I hope she’s not using my real name.”

“Not at all. She likes the mystery. She wants to make you even more mysterious, so she never refers to you by name. She’s fascinated with you, but she’s not fascinated with the real you. She’s developed a fantasy version of you, turned you into a fictional character for her writings. When I read what she's written, I wonder how much she really remembers about you.”

“I suppose that’s just as well: her turning me into a poetry character will help me avoid being identified and arrested. But, I wonder… Isauria with her poems… and all those other people making up stories about me… I wonder where it will end.”

“I’ve wondered that too. The stories about your adventures haven’t gone away. I’ve traveled to different villages and everywhere I’ve gone people remember you, but they don’t remember the real you. What they remember are their fantasies about you.”

"But I don't... understand. Why all the stories? What's so interesting about me? I've spent ten years wandering and I've really accomplished nothing. I survived, nothing more. I lost everyone around me, either through death or just saying goodbye. I'm as alone now as I was when I started out. What's so exciting or romantic about that?"

"I don't have the answer. I wish I did. I guess people tell stories because it's what they need to do. It would seem Isauria is only one out of many. And why you? Why not someone else? I don't know."

“So Priestess, what should I do? How can I live anywhere if there are all these strange tales circulating about me wherever I go?”

The Clergywoman thought for a moment before ordering Vesna to kneel. She grabbed her hands and prayed. The Priestess’s hands clamped down on those of her visitor as her arms shook violently. She let go and told Vesna to stand up.

“You need to go home.”


“You need to return to Rika Héckt-nemát.”

“I… I can’t go there.”

“Oh really? And where else would you go? You’ve told me yourself you don’t want to go to any other city. Whether you’re a wanted fugitive or there’s a person you don’t want to see, you’re convinced there’s nowhere for you to go. Your Path in Life is to return to Rika Héckt-nemát. The city needs you to go back.”

“But… what about... my arrest... and all those people... thinking I drowned in the river… and… looking for my body?”

“That happened to the peasant Danka Síluckt. She’s dead and there’s no proof she ever existed apart from a bunch of legends that don’t even use her real name. You’re Vesna Rogúskt, the traveler from Rika Chorna. You have the paperwork to prove it. You have nothing to do with the peasant Danka Síluckt. So… I’m telling you the Path of Your Life is to return to Rika Héckt-nemát.”

“But… go back… to a dead city… and what would I do there?”

“The Creator didn't enlighten me about what you will do there. All I know is you must go back, as soon as possible. And I’ll tell you how to go. You can’t go in through any of the main roads because they’re blocked by Royal Guards. The only way in is a smugglers’ trail that goes through the forest and comes up from the south.”

“So there are people still alive…”

“There must be, if smugglers are going in.”

* * *

Vesna left the following morning, wearing her guard outfit. She wore a tunic with the insignia of the Danubian Church to let others know she was traveling with the blessing of the Clergy. Moonlight trotted south through farmland and orchards, as Vesna bypassed Starívktaki Móskt and headed straight south towards the main road. She followed it for a while, reliving the journey she had taken along the same route a decade before. She crossed the Rika Chorna River and passed the spot where she saw the stage-coach accident and the farm where she first saw goats. She looked west towards some forested hills. Rika Héckt-nemát lay on the other side of those hills, but she couldn’t go that way because a garrison of Royal Guards blocked the road. Instead, she went south and stayed overnight at the chapel in a village at the southern edge of the cleared area.

She went into the woods and followed a narrow trail through the hills. The path continued south for a while until it arrived at a fork. The left fork continued south towards Hórkustk Ris province. She took the right fork, which turned west and would eventually lead her home.

She had hoped to complete the trip before nightfall, but when she noticed the darkness closing in on her she knew she needed to look for a place to stop. She found a cleared spot near a stream, just large enough to set up her bedroll and tie her horse. She was very apprehensive: she knew what was coming.

The night was pitch-black, so she didn’t need to wait for darkness to surround her. Instead she waited for the sound of the stream to go silent. She heard the soft flutter of a large bird. Its eyes glowed, reflecting non-existent light. Vesna stood up. She knew what else was coming: the ground grabbed her feet. The eyes slowly grew until they filled her entire range of vision. She had to wait a long time before the Destroyer spoke to her.

“Danka… Danka… Danka Síluckt”


“It’s been a decade, hasn’t it? Well, almost a decade. Not that it matters anymore.”

“Matters anymore? Why? Why do you say that?”

“This is the last time you’ll ever see me, Danka Síluckt. Whether you wanted to or not, you’ve served me well, but your travels are about to conclude, and I must release you.”

“Release me?”

There was a long pause, as Danka stared into the unblinking yellow eyes.

“Yes indeed, release you. I have no further use for you, Danka Síluckt, so it is time for our Paths in Life to separate. You will not see me again. You will understand that I am leaving you because I have chosen to spare you, just as I have chosen to spare the Duchy. Other places in the Realm of the Living will receive my attention. The Duchy, at least for the foreseeable future, will not.”

The eyes began to fade.

“Goodbye, Danka Síluckt.”

Chapter Thirty-three – The End of the Journey

Vesna spent the next day riding west through thick forests, and the day after that riding north. Whenever she was not worried about simple survival she pondered a growing question in her mind: Home… what exactly was home? After ten years of wandering she was no closer to knowing the answer than when she started her journey. She had seen many places that she would have called home, if only the Path of her Life had been different. There were the men she would have been happy to create a household with, but it seemed that the Destroyer followed closely behind her, annihilating that chance for peace and forcing her to move on.

Possessions had come and gone. She took the things she needed, and parted with them the moment they were no longer needed. The only items she would not part with were the three things she had started out with: her collar, her bucket, and the silver coin given to her by Farmer Orsktackt for that “dire emergency”.

Fortunately she still had the coin, never having been so desperate that she needed to spend it. There were times that she had money and times that she spent it, but never her first silver coin. She had long since convinced herself that, like the collar, the coin had protected her.

Ten years had gone by. It was hard to believe: ten years.

* * *

Vesna directed Moonlight northwards for the final hours of her journey, anticipating the moment she’d emerge into the open meadows and could see the town’s familiar walls and steeples. She’d ride up from the south, which meant the aqueduct project would be the first part of her former life she’d lay her eyes upon. She descended one last forested foothill, and noted sunlight shining on the path ahead. This was it… after ten years she’d finally see what had become of Rika Héckt-nemát.

When she emerged into the open, the first meadow was overgrown with brush and no sheep were in sight. There were no humans in sight, either. The road was deserted and overgrown with grass. The first cottage she approached was abandoned, with its roof caved in. There were other cottages; all abandoned and collapsed except for one. An old man stared at her with vacant eyes, while a growling dog warned her not to get any closer. She held up her cross-bow just in case, but did not challenge the dog.

As she continued her trek northwards, Vesna could see the familiar walls and steeples of Rika Héckt-nemát. The city’s skyline had not changed, but even in the distance she could see nothing but desolation. As she got closer, she could see most of the fields had been abandoned. The few people she saw along the road where shabbily dressed and moved quickly, obviously not willing to engage in any conversation.

She ascended a small hill, the final rise before crossing the flat fields leading up to the south gate and the irrigation project. The project had never been finished. It had advanced somewhat from the time she fled, but after ten years, it was not finished. Like almost everything else, it lay abandoned.

Vesna made sure her crossbow was ready. She had her long-bow as back-up. She had her sword. However, she was terrified. She desperately wanted to turn back and leave the ill-fated land of her youth. But she continued on, feeling the city draw her in against her will. The inn where she had sold her apples was abandoned, but she was relieved to see a few people milling around the gate. Finally she’d have a chance to find out what had happened to Rika Héckt-nemát. She addressed a young city guard who seemed somewhat approachable.

“The Plague, Mistress. The Destroyer Beelzebub paid us a visit ten years ago.”

“Ten years ago?”

“Yes, Mistress. Beelzebub killed our people just before harvest season in the accursed year of 1750. The people who didn’t die from the Plague died during the winter from starvation. The people who didn’t die from starvation left in the spring.”

“…and you? …and the others still here?”

The guard replied listlessly: “Some people always stay, Mistress, and some people always come back.”

“May I enter?”

“As you wish, Mistress.”

Most of the buildings were still standing, but many of them were unoccupied. Even the buildings with occupants were not being kept up. The prosperous, bustling city of her childhood was but a memory. She visited the forlorn cathedral and briefly talked to a Priest she had never seen before. The Priest verified that, during the summer of 1750, three quarters of the city’s population died within a two month period. Another thousand citizens starved to death over the winter, because there was no one to harvest the crops. Of the survivors, half fled in the spring. So, of the 20,000 people who had been in the city just a decade before, only 2,000 remained.

“We are but a village, living in the walls of what used to be a city.”

“So it was the rat-plague?”

“The rat-plague? What madness are you speaking, stranger? It was Beelzebub the Destroyer’s curse. Beelzebub struck us down. It wasn’t the rats…”

“Why do you say that, Priest?”

“So, you don’t know the tale about the drowned girl, the one who called out to Beelzebub?”

“No,” lied the visitor. “I’d be curious to hear it.”

“Ten years ago, there was a young girl in this city. The old people say she was so beautiful that just looking at her took your breath away. What they didn’t know was why she was so beautiful: it was because she had the blessing of Beelzebub. Anyhow, all the town’s men stopped looking at any of the other women. All they could look at was that one girl. So… and I’m not sure how they did it… the other women convinced the city council to tie her and throw her in the Rika Chorna. The city council picked the three most loyal guards to do the tasking, and even they had to hide the girl under a blanket so her beauty wouldn’t distract them. When they arrived at their destination, they tried to pick her up, but her dark magic made her so heavy that even three of them could barely move her. And yet, they were strong and loyal men, so the Lord-Creator helped them push her into the river.”

Vesna nodded, as she tried to refrain from laughing at the ridiculous details of the guards’ fantasy. Feigning concern, she asked the Priest to continue.

“Yes… so… and all three guards swore this to be the truth… the moment she fell into the water she cried out: ‘Beelzebub! Come save your daughter!’ Then, she vanished into the river. The guards didn't see her after that. They assumed she had cried out in vain. It was only later that the town realized she had not cried out in vain at all. Too late, the people realized the mistake they made by drowning her and not burning her, because Beelzebub did indeed save her. Then he avenged her. The very next month the Dark One unleashed his full wraith on our beloved city.”

“And how did the guards know she didn’t drown?”

“The townspeople searched for the body, but there was no body to be found.”

Vesna tightened her lips. Indeed, there was no body to be found, but not for the reason you think, you idiot.

In a very cold voice she replied: “Whether or not your people chose to murder an innocent girl had nothing to do with the city dying. It was the rat-plague. Madness or not, that’s what it was. The rat-plague.”

Vesna abruptly left the Church. In spite of the town’s ghostly appearance, she was curious to have a look around at some of the areas she never got to see as a teenager. She visited the fine houses on the north side of the main plaza and the now-shuttered shops that at one time sold expensive items, including nice wedding dresses. Such a long time ago… ten years… not long or very long. Both and neither. Anyhow, it was during a different life.

She took it for granted that her family would not have survived the epidemic. Still, she had to know for sure. With her crossbow ready, she mounted Moonlight and set out for her family’s homestead. The familiar old road was still there, but the side path that led to her house was completely overgrown. She couldn’t even be sure of its exact location. There was not a hint of anyone still living among those trees. Not her family, and not any of her neighbors. All gone and all forgotten.

Nightfall was approaching. Vesna needed to figure out what she was going to do for a place to sleep. It seemed there were no desirable options: if she went back to the city she risked getting sick, if she tried to set up camp anywhere outside she risked attack from wild dogs and roving gangs. She opted for going back into the city. However, as she turned on the road to return to the south gate, she remembered Farmer Tuko Orsktackt. It was unlikely he’d still be alive, but Vesna figured there was no harm in checking. She’d have to pass his farm anyhow, to get into the city.

The farm seemed run-down, but to Vesna’s surprise, it was not deserted. The outer part of the orchard had been abandoned, but the trees closest to the farmer’s house were still being maintained. Could it be that Farmer Orsktackt survived the plague?

Vesna passed the fallen fence and approached the portion of the farm that was still active. She tied her horse to a tree and tossed several apples down for him to eat. She walked the rest of the way on foot. Sure enough, she could see him between the leaves, trimming branches on one of the trees he still was maintaining. She continued towards him, slowly to avoid startling him. She called out:

"Farmer Orsktackt! Farmer Orsktackt!"

When he turned, he dropped his pruning saw and stared at her in utter shock. He looked different. He had aged, obviously, but that wasn't it. The authoritative way he had carried himself ten years before was gone. He looked weighed down by sadness and futility. He stared at the familiar face, trying to place her. Finally he remembered:

“Peasant... Danka? Danka Síluckt?”

“Yes, Farmer Orsktackt. That's who I am. Or at any rate, that was the name that I had… a long time ago.” The young woman smiled. “I’m now using the name Vesna, Vesna from Rika Chorna.”

“I’m so glad… at last... a familiar face… please… come in…Vesna… come in.”

“I need to bring my horse.”

“Yes… please… put him in the barn… I’ll help you.”

Tuko Orsktackt helped Vesna unload her belongings from Moonlight and led the horse into a stall. The farmer saw to the animal’s needs, making sure he had hay and water. Both the farmer and his visitor were glad to have their hands occupied for a few minutes. They needed to talk, and they had a lifetime of catching up to do. But… where to begin? They both needed a few moments to put their thoughts in order.

Vesna looked around. It was obvious that her host was the only occupant of the residence. His family was gone and his servants were gone. He lived alone.

“…and your family, Farmer Orsktackt?”

“The same as yours. They died in the plague. All of them. My children. All of my servants. My workers. I buried 36 people. And I never got sick. I wanted to, I mean… get sick and join them… but it never happened.”

“And you didn’t want to leave?”

“I did. But people need to eat. I know how to grow food. So… the Lord Creator spared me, for the others, I’d imagine. I didn't want to remain in the Realm of the Living, but I'm here, whether I want to be or not. There are times I don’t think that city deserves to eat, but I feed them anyway.”

“Everyone deserves to eat, Farmer Orsktackt. You’re the one who provides the food for the others. One farmer is more useful than a hundred guards. There wouldn't be anything, or anyone, without you.”

Vesna's last comment seemed forced, but her intention was to make Tuko realize his life was vital for others and his existence in the Realm of the Living had a purpose. There was an awkward moment of silence, but it passed. Vesna suddenly became overwhelmed with emotion and fell into the farmer’s arms. It was the first time he had the pleasure of embracing another person for a decade. Without warning, and without understanding why, she began to cry.

They stood holding on to each other for a while, but finally they recovered enough for Vesna to move her things inside. They ate a simple dinner of apples and vegetables as they talked about Tuko’s efforts to keep the farm going.

The conversation shifted to the rat-plague as Tuko gave a more detailed account of what happened to the city during that terrible summer of 1750. The day laborers were the first to get sick. They panicked and spread out from their homes, which probably infected the rest of the area surrounding the city, including the Orsktackt estate. When the laborers tried entering the city to get assistance from the doctors, the city council closed the gate and ordered the guards to shoot arrows and fire a cannon at them.

“In their blind panic, the guards killed a lot of the men. It’s very possible your father could have been among those shot by an arrow at the gate.”

The farmer did not have any news of the outside for over a month, because he was attending to his own family and workers. Not a single member of his family, nor any of his employees, survived. However, he was so busy digging graves that he didn’t have time to mourn those whose souls already had separated from their bodies.

When Tuko was left alone, he ventured off his land, mostly to avoid going mad from the horror of having lost everyone he cared about. The countryside was deserted and the city was a disaster area, with rotting corpses lying everywhere. He, along with a city councilman, the only remaining Priest, three other Farmers’ Guild members, and a few city guards, organized the disoriented survivors into squads to collect and burn the corpses.

“The Destroyer was true to his name when he visited us. As a people, we were destroyed.”

Tuko spent the following year trying to figure out how much of his farm a single man could maintain. A few workers came and went, but they were nothing like the happy and loyal servants he had when Vesna first met him. To him, his old workers had been like family, but the new ones were shiftless vagabonds who usually stole more than they produced.

“There were only four of us farmers left. The city was dying as it was, but without our food, our people would have died much faster. By the second year, we managed to control the food crisis and grow what the city needed. That first year was the hardest.”

Tuko’s expression changed, reflecting anger and bitterness. “…and the Grand Duke did absolutely nothing to help us! In fact, he ordered the roads that pass through our city closed and all travelers had to bypass us. Everything was blockaded. Even those of us trying to get out… he ordered the soldiers to strip them and burn their clothing before they could continue on. They had to leave all their belongings tossed on the road. So, many turned back.”

“I hate to say this, Farmer Orsktackt, but the Grand Duke was right. He had to isolate the city and make sure no one was coming out with poisoned fleas.”

“Poisoned fleas?”

Vesna shared Alchemist Babáckt Yaga’s discovery that it was the fleas, and not the rats, that spread the plague. “It’s the fleas that are poisonous. It’s not bad air or rat piss or anything like that, and the rats die just like we do. Those fleas, the ones that bite the rats, carry some kind of poison, and that’s what makes us get sick. The only way to cure plague, it seems, is by eating a special kind of mold. The mold is an antidote for the poison, but a person must do it as soon as he realizes he’s getting sick. I know it sounds totally weird, but I know Alchemist Babáckt Yaga was right.”

“And your alchemist? What happened to her?”

“She was killed. The True Believers crucified her… and my lover had to burn her settlement with special musket powder… and he killed himself in the fire. That happened two summers after I left here. But I had a good year in the settlement with the Followers of the Ancients, until the very last day. She taught me a lot.”

Vesna’s comment made Tuko realize that he was not alone in his suffering. Vesna could understand what he went through, but without feeling sorry for him or being condescending.

* * *

Vesna’s overnight stay in Tuko’s house extended into several days, and then into a week. She helped him with the farm tasks and in making repairs. She cooked for him while he took care of Moonlight and his own horse. They went out hunting together and challenged each other’s archery skills. Tuko seemed to come alive with her presence. There was no hint that he wanted her to leave.

Then one afternoon, he started talking about Rika Héckt-nemát. Not about its past, but about its future. “I hate that city and the cruel idiots who’ve always run it. It was the stupidity of its own people that caused the plague to affect us as badly as it did. And yet, for the sake of the Duchy, we are going to have to rebuild and encourage outsiders to settle here. Maybe the future generation can do better, and actually make it a decent place to live.”

As they rode around the countryside, or worked in the apple orchard, Vesna noticed that Tuko constantly talked about the future, but always about the future of Rika Héckt-nemát, never about the future of himself. It wasn’t hard to figure out why: Tuko’s family was dead. Several times he had told Vesna that he wanted his soul to separate from his body, but felt that it was his Path in Life to do as much as possible for his city, a city that had done very little for him in return.

Vesna realized that she had no future either. Of course, she could take off and go wandering again any time she wished, but had no desire to continue her travels. She never really enjoyed wandering, but every time there was a hint of settling down with a person she loved, that chance of happiness vanished in a bloody flash. She loved, she grieved, and she moved on. That had been the Path of her Life.

Ten years ago she left with nothing more than a collar, a pair of boots, and a bucket full of apples. Over the past decade the only additions she had made to her life were a horse, a few weapons, and a couple of outfits. No love and no possessions. She saw no point in continuing.

She was alone, and Tuko was alone. Their time together was a welcome break from their lives of loneliness. More importantly, they actually enjoyed being together. Maybe it didn’t have to end.

At the end of her second week at Tuko’s farm, Vesna decided it was time to pose an important question. If she didn’t receive the answer she wanted, she was prepared leave. She had to make sure Tuko understood without confronting him directly.

Over dinner she started probing him about his vision of the future. As she expected, he talked about the future of Rika Héckt-nemát without including himself.

“Farmer Orstackt, I really don’t see how Rika Héckt-nemát can have a future without you having a future. Do you really think the Path of your Life is nothing more than growing fruit for a village of idiots? Don’t you think you have so much more to contribute? You’re convinced that your Path in Life is stay alone… and die unburied and un-mourned? Do you really think that’s all the Lord Creator wants for you?”

“I’ve thought about it… but there’s no one… that town… I just can’t imagine…”

“Really? No one? Not even a dishonored apple-thief who left and came back?”

Tuko looked up and exchanged looks with his determined guest. She was not the naďve girl from ten years before. Her body was thinner and sinewy from a decade of running and hard living. Her face and arms were dark from constantly being outside. She looked tough, but in the eyes of the farmer, a man who appreciated strength, perseverance, and determination, the woman in front of him was more beautiful than ever.

She continued, “Both our families are dead. We are the last survivors. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.”

After a pause the farmer asked, “So… you’re not upset about…”

“There is very little you did that I need to forgive you for. You saved my life. It’s because of you that I got away from this town, from my father, and from the rat-plague. I’ve always thought about you, always admired you. You’re what a man should be. You’re not perfect, but that’s not what I want. I’ve seen perfect men, and I can’t stand the sight of them.”

Tuko took a deep breath. He wouldn’t have given Vesna a second thought ten years before, but now he understood why the Lord-Creator had made him wait so long. She had come back, changed, and ready to begin a new life. He reached out his hand, but she shook her head and pulled back.

“Not here, Farmer Orsktackt. I said there is very little you did that I need to forgive you for. There is one thing you did, that I’d like you to fix.”

There are a lot of things I did to you, Tuko thought to himself. “Very well. Whatever it is… I’ll try to make it right.”

“When you sent me off, you never said goodbye. I was grateful for all your help, but that one small thing hurt me.”

“I didn’t… because I didn’t know what to say…”

“So you just said nothing? Just ran off? I’d like to think that’s not typical of you.”

“How can I fix it?”

“After the sun sets, I’m going east… to the place we parted. I’d like you to meet me there. Wait here, and give me an hour head-start. Find me on that hill, and bring me back.”

“That’s all you want me to do?”

“That’s all. I know it’s a strange request, but I need you to do it for me.”

For the last time in her life, Vesna put on her collar and her boots. She picked up her bucket and dropped in the silver coin. She set out into the darkness.

She knew there was some risk, going out unclothed and unarmed, but she had to do it. She had to finish her journey the way she began it.

She was much more experienced moving through the nighttime forest undetected than she had been the first time she went up the hill. She walked silently and cautiously to avoid both hostile animals and hostile people.

She crested the dark summit and emerged into the clearing. The view was exactly as she remembered it: the same moonlit river, the same rolling hills, the same lights off in the distance. She stood silently, remembering and enjoying the sensation of the cool night breeze and the moonlight caressing her body. It feels good to be like this. It’s one thing about my old life that I’ll miss.

Her old life. Already Vesna was thinking of her years of wandering as her old life. She’d finally have a proper wedding and wear the nice dress she always wanted. She’d toil alongside her husband in the orchard and rebuild the farm. She’d have children and bring them up to learn, question, and think, not just react to the challenges of life. She wondered if she’d ever get restless and feel the urge to go out again. She hoped not, but one never knew.

Because she had moved so cautiously, even with the head start she did not have to wait very long for her former mentor and future husband. When he emerged from the woods, she was standing quietly, her bare body illuminated by the moon. At that moment she looked exactly the same to him, as though the passing of ten years had not happened.

He reached out to her, and this time she did let him take her hand.

“Danka, please come with me. It’s time for us to go home.”

She nodded and, for the first time in their lives, they shared a proper kiss under the moonlight. He took her hand and led her back up the hill and onto the road leading to Rika Héckt-nemát. They returned to the orchard just as the sky was starting to lighten in the east.

There was a final part of Vesna’s homecoming. She took off her collar and handed it to Farmer Orsktackt. She always had felt nervous about the Guild’s secret getting out. With the collar safely returned, she had once less thing to worry about.

Chapter Thirty-four – Vesna Rogúskt-Orsktacktna

So Danka Síluckt’s travels ended when the Path of her Life finally brought her back to Rika Héckt-nemát. Who would have thought she’d end up precisely where her journey started? Certainly not the traveling singers and story-tellers, who already were making up increasingly sorrowful and outlandish versions of her adventures.

It seems that she lost all desire to travel after she married and became known to the world as Vesna Rogúskt-Orsktacktna, Farmer Tuko Orsktackt’s wife from the east. She became the partner he needed to repair his broken farm, and in doing so, she helped him repair his broken soul. Within eight years she bore him seven children, of whom six survived to become adults. There were four boys and two girls, all of whom were vital to the rebuilding of Rika Héckt-nemát. One son became a city councilman, another became the town Church’s leading priest, another served in Parliament, and the youngest boy, the roughest one who was always causing trouble, eventually became captain of the city guard. The two surviving girls did just as well: one married the mayor of Rika Chorna, and the other stayed behind, to marry a farmer and double the size of the Orsktackt estate. The Orsktackts became one of the leading families in Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia during the nineteenth century.

Although she lost the desire to travel, Vesna’s soul remained restless. She took over the abandoned trading house in her city and converted it into a medical research center. The project had humble beginnings, just a few doctors, alchemists, and potion-makers studying medical texts and cadavers, but over time the medical library grew, a hospital was added, and the project flourished into the medical university that we have today. Vesna frequently visited the hospital, constantly asking questions and occasionally assisting the staff when they had to set broken bones.

Rika Héckt-nemát started to recover the same year the girl-with-no-name secretly returned home. Farmer Orsktackt impressed upon the city council the need for rat-control programs and improved sanitation. When word got out that the city was safe, outsiders came to take advantage of the free houses in the town and the free land outside. Eventually there were enough workers to re-start the aqueduct project. Workers returned to farms and orchards, the harvests were good, and the plague and famine of 1750 became a distant memory. Farmer Orsktackt and his wife continued their rides and hunting trips in the fields and forests, observing the countryside and noting with satisfaction the province’s recovery.

* * *

The Grand Duke of Danubia spent the following decades working on a multitude of projects. In 1761, the son of the Lord of Novo Sokut Tok went to the capital to talk to the Grand Master of the Trader’s Guild. From there he planned to travel to Austria, to see about procuring some new muskets for his father’s militia. The night before he was supposed to leave, he accepted an invitation from the Grand Duke to have dinner at his castle. Seated with the sovereign was a beautiful young woman who had just braided her hair. The young woman captivated the visitor, and turned out to be available for marriage… very much so. Three days later, without understanding what exactly had happened, the son of one of the men most loyal to the Vice-Duke of Rika Chorna was in the Great Temple of the capital, getting married to the daughter of a man his father considered an enemy. The ceremony was very public and greeted with the blessings of the highest clergy members in the nation.

The young man had to cancel his plans to go to Vienna. Instead, he returned home with the Grand Duke’s daughter and the shocking news that his entire family had just switched allegiance. Along with his marriage certificate, the young man brought home a letter from the Grand Duke addressing his new in-laws with kind words of greeting and the “pleasure we will have working with each other as we address the challenges the Destroyer has placed at the feet of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia.”

That marriage was the first out of many. Some ambitious politicians even traveled to the capital to intentionally seek an audience with the ruler and bring back one of his daughters. In 1763, a junior council official from Plátnackt Dék persuaded the Grand Duke to allow him to marry one of his daughters. The ruler normally would not have given a daughter to such a low-ranking official, but there was something about the young man that appealed to him. Perhaps he saw a lot of himself in the petty representative. Anyhow, he reluctantly followed his instincts and allowed the man to take away one of his less attractive offspring. Upon returning home the councilman used his new family alliance to seize control of the entire city, declare the area loyal to the sovereign, and appoint himself the local governor. The Grand Duke was very impressed with the young man’s audacity and rewarded him by adding several nearby towns to his jurisdiction and making Plátnackt Dék a separate province.

Because of their perception of public honor and Danubian protocol, the Grand Duke’s sons-in-law never warned anyone else not to travel to the capital and they never let their friends know how they had been duped. They had to pretend they had willingly married the sovereign’s daughters. As a result of the informal code of silence, years went by and no one could accurately calculate how many daughters the ruler actually was marrying off. Over five years the Vice-Duke lost family after family of his best allies to the wiles of his rival’s daughters. By June, 1767 he realized that more than half of the provincial governors, town council leaders, and guild chiefs had someone in their family who had married a daughter of the Grand Duke. At that point the idea of starting a rebellion or threatening a rebellion as a political maneuver had become impossible.

The Vice-Duke realized another awful fact; that his two surviving sons had recently departed for the capital. The Vice-Duke desperately sent messengers to find the young men, but already it was too late. An elaborate entourage of Danubian Clergy members, Royal Guards, and ministers were escorting the happily-married young men back to their homes in the east. The Grand Duke led the procession, bringing with him gifts and bottles of his best wine to celebrate with his new in-laws. The Vice-Duke became dishonorably drunk at the festivities, while the Grand Duke looked on and coldly smiled.

The Vice-Duke died the following year. One of his heir’s first announcements was that farming taxes throughout the Vice-Duchy would be reduced. The heir also announced much of his father’s artwork and jewelry would be sold off to pay debts.

In 1770, after a decade of planning, the Priests of more than half of the parishes in the Vice-Duchy declared they were switching allegiance to the Old Believers’ faction of the Danubian Church. The religious coup brought western Danubian religious traditions to the east and ended all foreign religious influence in the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia.

* * *

The Grand Duke’s attentions were focused on the Duchy’s borders and securing control of the east, but occasionally he received reports about the plague town Rika Héckt-nemát and its recovery. Yes, a town that he had considered completely dead seemed to have recuperated and was starting to prosper. He sent a group of doctors to investigate the inhabitants and see if the quarantine should be lifted. Sure enough, not only was the town’s population healthy, but a new medical institute was operating, using a lot of the knowledge from the Cult of the Ancients. The messengers brought back news of the impressive work of the town’s leading couple: the farmer Tuko Orsktackt and his wife Vesna Rogúskt-Orsktacktna.

The Grand Duke lifted the quarantine and re-routed the trade road to enter Rika Héckt-nemát. He decided to pay a visit to the city to see its progress for himself and investigate what the Crown could do to assist. Tuko Orsktackt, the town’s entire Clergy, and the City Council received the ruler in the most elaborate ceremony the city had seen in many decades. The Grand Duke and his ministers attended the Council to listen to suggestions that would improve the region.

The Grand Duke visited the medical institute the following day. He was eager to meet its director and see if she really did have knowledge from the Cult of the Ancients. When she approached him and saluted, he stared at her in shock. She looked very familiar… no… it was impossible… but there she was, right in front of him. He was looking into the face of his favorite concubine… the smart young Follower who had mysteriously vanished during the Great Fire. Yes indeed, it was her!

Director Vesna Rogúskt-Orsktacktna smiled at her former Master. There was defiance and mischief in her expression, because there was no way the Grand Duke could do anything against her without seriously harming his own interests. He had come to the city to honor the achievements of the Orsktackts, with the entire political elite of the country watching. The ruler quickly regained his composure and congratulated her on the medical institute’s remarkable progress.

When he asked what he could do to assist, she responded, “Your Majesty has conducted extensive medical research and our people are grateful. I trust that Your Majesty would wish to see that remarkable work expanded for the people of the Duchy. This city would be most appreciative if Your Majesty could share your research materials with our school.”

“Yes, of course. Send your students to the Royal Library, and I will make my research available to your institute.”

Vesna couldn’t resist another mischievous smile and a final question, “I trust that Your Majesty finds your loyal subject’s service to the Duchy satisfactory?”

“Yes. Your service has been… truly remarkable… exceptional...”

The Grand Duke kept his word and opened the Royal Household to students from Vesna Rogúskt-Orsktacktna’s institute. She sent fourteen young people to transcribe the entire contents of the Followers’ research. When they returned to Rika Héckt-nemát, a wagon crew transporting a gift from the Royal Household accompanied them. When Vesna took off the cover, she saw a printing press with a supply of paper and bookbinding materials.

Vesna reciprocated the following year. She traveled to the capital, passing the new ministry buildings that would comprise the ruler’s vision for the grand new city. She visited the castle and met with the Grand Duchess, who was the daughter of the Vice-Duke in Rika Chorna. She surprised the castle staff by not having any visible gifts for the ruler, but she asked to meet with him in his private study.

The Grand Duke seemed nervous, wondering if his former concubine wanted to confront him about the past. However, there was no mention of her two years in the castle at all. Instead, she presented her gift to him: a supply of blue powder. She showed him how to use it by making tea and explained how the Followers had set it aside to extend the lives of their most important researchers.

“This is the last of my supply, Your Majesty. Now it is yours. The Ancients have given you their final gift, and the only thing they ask in return is that you use your extra time among the Realm of the Living wisely.”

Vesna left the castle and never again saw the Grand Duke. However, after that meeting he changed. His arrogance vanished, leaving behind his intelligence, cunning, and desire to see his realm prosper. He became even more obsessed with research and education than he had been previously. He was interested in judicial reforms and infrastructure development and applied innovations throughout his time on the throne. He would live until 1816, long enough to guide the Duchy past the partitioning of Poland, the turmoil of revolution, and the Napoleonic wars. The ruler remained aloof from Europe’s politics, so the conflicts that afflicted the rest of the continent never troubled the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia.

* * *

There was one final tragedy that Danka, or Vesna, or the girl-with-no-name, had to endure. At the age of four, her youngest daughter died of appendicitis. Even though she had other children, she took the child’s death very hard. She refused to allow the girl to be buried in the family cemetery. Instead, she set off on her own, carrying the child’s body to an abandoned piece of land on the east side of Rika Héckt-nemát. In the days before the plague, the area had been a labyrinth of dirt paths and squalid huts, the home of the city’s day laborers. However, it had been totally abandoned for almost three decades. And yet, in those woods, next to a pond and the foundation of a ruined hut, Vesna insisted on laying her daughter to rest.

The following year, Vesna Rogúskt-Orsktacktna had a chapel constructed on the site of her daughter’s grave, over-looking the pond. On the other side of the pond she later built another chapel to honor the families who had died in the rat-plague.

“There were people here. They’ve been forgotten, but that doesn’t mean they never existed. I plan to remember. My daughter and I will bear witness to the lives that passed through here, and the ones that ended here.”

The chapel project brought peace to Vesna’s soul. Over time her workers cleared away the brush and converted the woods into a large park. Her husband took official title to the entire area, but the two chapels became public places where the residents of Rika Héckt-nemát made pilgrimages and performed penance. A final touch for Vesna was reintroducing the ducks. The ducks were important to her and they have remained a feature of the pond for more than two centuries.

* * *

Aided by his wife’s mysterious blue tea, Farmer Tuko Orsktackt lived to be 91 years old. In his old age he jokingly complained that his wife wouldn’t let him depart the world without her, and “she’s too busy to worry about trivial things such as dying.”

The year 1800 came and went. As the new century opened, Rika Héckt-nemát’s leading couple frequented the concert house to listen to musicians and traveling singing troupes. Almost all of the traveling singers had a version of the legend of the mysterious girl-with-no-name as part of their performance. As the ordinary citizens whistled and sang along to the sad tales, Vesna always gave Tuko a knowing look and took his hand.

The old couple smiled, thinking about the secret they shared, a secret they would take with them to the grave.

The End

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