Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Devor watched his exhausted mother take off her prized wedding band and place it in a crack in the stone foundation. It was where she always kept it when she was washing clothes in a cracked wooden tub that leaked water on the stone floor. She was afraid the lye in the soap would tarnish the precious gold her late husband had worked for years as a woodcarver to purchase. “Hurry Mother!” Devor said. “They have already formed a circle around the Zivot and it’s time for the picking!”
Each spring a huge and ancient Juhar tree growing in the center of the tiny forest parish of Ajándék in Foederati, a former Roman providence north of Italy, sprouted buds with the name of a village-resident hidden inside each growing leaf’s blade.
In the fall, when the leaves turned from green to red and then to a rich shade of gold, the names became visible. During Fesztivál-ajándékok (the Festival of Gifts) each resident picked a golden leaf and secretly made a present to place under the tree for the named person the following year.
The ritual created twelve months of expectation as each villager secretly observed the person named on the leaf, and tried to decide what would be the most appropriate gift.
Devor’s mother, Lucija, suspected her son was more anxious to catch a glimpse of Andelka Kitosh, the beautiful daughter of the Providence Lord who lived in the large stone bastion above the village. And to find out what his present was rather than finding out who he had to supply a gift for the next year.
Picking a leaf from the tree was a serious responsibility. The gift you selected for the person must not only be something they would enjoy, but it also had to be useful to them in some way.
Tradition said the magic of Zivot would always help to create or procure the gift; all you really had to supply was the desire … and the belief. She sighed. If only her son would realize his infatuation with the lord’s daughter was hopeless.
Lucija rinsed the clothes one last time and then had Devor help her carry the heavy basket behind their small cottage to a thin cord stretched tight between two trees. She could see faint wisps of her breath. “It’s getting cold,” she said. “I hope these don’t freeze before they have a chance to dry.”
“Who cares,” Devor said as he helped his mother hang the garments using crude wooden pegs with tapered slits cut in them for pins. “The clothes we have on are clean and should last several days!”
“Night often lays traps in a creeping gloom, so you must always be ready for the morning,” Lucija told her son. “Those who don’t are often caught by misfortune.”
Almost the entire village stood with their backs to the tree as Devor and his mother arrived. No one was supposed to know who the wrapped presents came from.
Devor had drawn the name of Leona whose job it was to feed a large flock of ever hungry ducks and geese in the pond next to her husband’s mill. He anxiously placed her wrapped present under the tree. It was a special double bucket he’d designed and made. When you removed the outer bucket, holes peppered in the inner bucket’s bottom and sides would spread the grain evenly as Leona charged through the flapping and fighting gabble.
Lucija had worked a hundred nights to sew the mayor a new blue dyed wool coat with bone buttons and fancy embroidered sleeves.
The village trumpeter blew three long notes to announce that the gift giving was complete and the villagers formed a half circle around Zivot. The sun was sinking into the western horizon and everyone was careful not to step in the long shadow cast from the massive tree.
“Last year Adj Beroslav was too busy looking for his present and forgot where he was walking,” Andelka whispered as she stood next to Devor. He caught a scent of lavender coming from her golden hair as she brushed against him. “He stepped in the shadow and then drowned in the river when spring came.” Andelka made her eyes go wide and then she smiled playfully at Devor.
“Does stepping in Zivot’s shadow always bring about evil?” Devor asked. Andelka had attended a very expensive school in the city and was knowledgeable about a great many things. “Everything about the Zivot is magical,” Andelka said moving closer. “Good and bad. The shadow is just the unknown or hidden parts. Who knows what might happen?”
“Does anyone know about the bad parts?” Devon asked. He felt a weakness in his chest each time she looked at him.”
“An herb gathering old woman named Banya once claimed to know all of the tree’s secrets,” Andelka stepped back; she was disappointed. “But the village elders banished her to the forest – mostly out of fear … they said she was a boszorkány!”
“A witch!” Devor gasped. From the time he was little, Devor had heard frightful stories about the dark magic that also inhabited the tiny hamlet.
“Shhhh …” Devor’s mother silenced him. She was always afraid that her son’s fascination with Andelka would turn into hopeless love. The pretty girl, whose father she cleaned for, although pleasant to be around, was obviously too far above her son’s humble station and she didn’t want him to be hurt by a forbidden desire. “The ceremony is about to begin!”
“In the year of our lord 417,” The mayor began. “We gather here to observe another season of great prosperity by the grace of God and the power of the Zivot that he has blessed us with …”
“I hope I pick your name,” Andelka whispered to Devor and squeezed his hand.
“And I hope I pick yours!” He blushed.
After an excruciating long spiel, the mayor finally finished his speech and the villagers lined up to open their presents and to pick next year’s name. Andelka had moved to the noble side of the tree where her father stood glaring at the ragged son of one of his servants.
Devor received a set of wood carving tool from some anonymous person and his mother received a small barrel of lye soap.
Devor gasped when he saw Andelka’s name glowing on the back of the leaf he picked. He carefully placed the leaf in his coat pocket and smiled as he watched the girl he was enthralled with, climbing into a fancy carriage.
It wasn’t allowed to tell anyone whose name you had picked and Devor wondered why his mother seemed unusually upset. He found out a moment later why when Andelka’s furious father appeared beside them roughly pushing Devor out of the way. “You keep that vacak son of yours away from my daughter … or I’ll see to it that both of you starve!” he threatened.
“Yes my lord!” Devor’s mother bowed.
Devor reached his hand into his pocket as his mother yanked him toward home but all he found was tiny bits of broken leaf … the magic of Zevot had been crushed.
“By why must I go away mother?” Devor watched his mother carefully fold his clothes and put them into a small travel bag.
“Your uncle lives in the city and will teach you to be a master carver,” she said. “Someday you will be as good as your father was and be able to take a wife and provide for a family. Until then you must work had and try to learn everything your uncle shows you.”
“I’m already the best carver in the village … everyone says so,” Devor told her and then added. “What would it take to make a home for someone like Andelka?”
“You must put the lord’s daughter out of your mind,” Lucija scolded and then relented and hugged her son as tears came into his eyes.
“But I love her,” he cried.
“You can’t control the wind,” she said as she stroked his red hair. “It blows where it will.”
The city was much larger than anything Devor had ever seen before and his uncle kept him busy almost every minute of the day in his furniture shop carving birds and flowers into the back of chairs and shaping legs on a lathe. It was only at night that the loneliness and love sickness overcame him. He often watched the stars from the window of his small attic bedroom and wondered where Andelka was and what she was doing. “I’ll find a way to be with you forever,” he promised the stars. The way they twinkled in reply he couldn’t tell if they were agreeing or laughing … he hoped it was the former.
“We just received some ghastly news from you home,” Devor’s uncle told him two years later when Devor came in from delivering a magnificently carved wardrobe to a client. “A Hun Lord named Demilune who even church leaders are calling the Scourge of Hell has attacked and burned most of the northern provinces with his armies. I asked about your village but the constable told me that none were spared.”
Devor dropped his uncle’s payment for the wardrobe on the table and began to stuff his tools into a bag. “Where are you going?” his uncle demanded.
“To find my mother!” Devor told him.
“You have another year on your indenture and she is most surely dead,” his uncle said. The furniture maker’s nephew had been making him lots of money with almost no outlay. “I won’t let you go!”
“Try to stop me!” Devor pushed him out of the way.
It took three days for Devor to arrive home walking down endless dirt roads past burnt fields and piles of smoldering soot and rubble that used to be houses and barns. Every cleared area of the forest was smoking. Rotting farm animals lay where they had been senselessly slaughtered adding starvation to the endless misery plaguing the lands.
Throughout Foederati, and most of the providences north of Rome, unbelievable destruction was wrought by the unmerciful armies from the steppes of Eastern Europe.
As he neared his village Devor noticed a man he barely knew from another town pushing a cart and helping to clean up the rubble. Both of his ears had been cut off and dried blood made it look as if he were wearing a helmet. All the forced labor workers seemed to be wearing white cloth tied on their arms. “Have you seen my mother?” Devor shouted as the man hurried past.
“If she was anywhere near the valley when Half-Moon’s plague of soldiers surged through the lands she is dead,” the man moaned. “I will be too if I don’t get this rubbish swept away. Lord Demilune spared a few to help clean and make this place ready for his wedding celebration coming in just a fortnight. After that … I can only guess at our fate!”
Devor turned teary eyes to the stone bastion above the village; it appeared to be the only dwelling left intact. “Do you know if the girl who lived in that castle survived?” He pointed to the fortress on the hill hoping without hope for a miracle.
“Of course she did,” the man replied as he began to shovel ashes into a wagon. “Our late lord’s daughter Andelka, was always the most beautiful girl in the country. She is to be the sorry bride of Demilune and he’s keeping her in one of those towers … a tragedy she didn’t go fast,” he added with a look of revulsion.
Devor was growing more and more horrified as he searched for the remains of his family home. There were no intact landmarks. It was as if the entire countryside had turned to ash. Cracked and blackened stone was all that remained of the house he grew up in. Devor was just about to walk away when a gleam from the charred foundation caught his eye. He reached down and plucked his mother’s golden wedding ring from the rubble. She must have been doing laundry when the armies came he thought
The horror he had endured before was nothing to that which assaulted him when he entered the village proper. A few burnt and blackened timbers were all that remained, rising from the charred stone foundations of the homes. Frozen puddles tinted with blood came from melted snow. In the town square hundreds of spikes had been driven into the frozen ground in a circle, with a severed head of a village resident atop each one. In the center the magnificent Zivot tree lay uprooted and burned only a charred stump remained.
The shocked boy tried not to look but he couldn’t. The miller’s head stared at him from atop a sharpened post next to his wife. The village priest looked as if he had swallowed a crucifix and the end protruding from his neck cavity was lashed to the spike with rosary beads. The shoemaker who had made him a pair of boots in return for a new door looked toward heaven for eternity with one eye and a spike thrust through the other. Too many familiar faces appeared each one a vision from a horrible dream.
Time appeared to slow. The buzzing of flies entering forever open mouths became a low rumble like thunder. Devor couldn’t breathe it was as if he were drowning gasping for air. Everything about him began to spin. Then shock suddenly covered him like ice water and his mind treacherously cleared. The severed head of the dear woman who had nursed him as a child who had loved and watched over him all his life rested on an iron spike looted from a cemetery fence … her downcast and closed eyes forever frozen in quiet acceptance of the horrors of society.
Devor didn’t know he was screaming “Mother!” until he heard shouts from the soldiers. An arrow whizzed past his head and tore a chunk of skin from his ear. He was running and heard malicious laughter as dozens of arrows flew past him. Devor was shocked to find they weren’t really trying to hit him … just having fun … for now. A trumpet sounded just as Devor dodged another arrow and sprinted behind the remains of a chimney hearth and crouched in a shallow well half filled with rubble, blood and bone.
Devor slowly rose from the well and peered back at his attackers. The war lord who was obviously Demilune thundered into the village with at least a hundred others all on horseback as the soldiers who had shot arrows at Devor formed two regimented lines. The Hun lord’s un-helmeted head was round, stained red with blood and without hairs except for a few strands coiled like black wire. Wild bulging eyes the color of diseased wheat scanned the area with malicious satisfaction as his horse pranced around the carnage. “When they are finished you may turn those white rags red!” He said waving an arm carelessly toward the workers with the white cloth on their arms. “Leave the heads,” he ordered pointing to the massive circle on bloody spikes. “I rather like the way they look!” Then he added with a laugh almost as an after-though. “My new less-than-respectful bride should be suitably stifled.”
The soldiers stood at attention, raised their bows in the air and clashed them together in salute as the monstrous war lord rode away. By that time, Devor was hurtling through the underbrush that surrounded the village escaping deep into the forest, trying to wake from a nightmare with eyes wide open … filled with shock and unbelievable sorrow.
Devor hadn’t eaten for three days, ever since he’d left his uncle’s workshop, but he was still not hungry. He didn’t really care if he ever ate again. Horror and sorrow rolled off him with a weight that seemed to fill his boots with rocks. Each step was a labor. Thirst was like a worried parent calling from a distance.
Just before night a looming two level cottage made of sticks and dried brambles appeared in the bottom of a jagged gully surrounded by a vile, snake-like mist. It was the first intact dwelling he’d seen since leaving the village. Crows perched on a thatched roof and pigs grunted in a pen … the only non-enslaved living things he’d thus found. Twisted trees grew up and away from the house as if it contained a leaching, heated poison. Fumes came from a large pot boiling over a fire. Devor noticed a rocked well with a crank and bucket and his throat suddenly cried for water.
He cranked the bucket to the rim and was just drinking when a voice like splintering wood came from behind the house. “Those be tears from a mourning sky,” a wild woman cackled as she limped from behind two mulberry bushes pointing to the water. “Embrace all weight from whence you die,” she declared. “Snakes and sneezes wicked things … break your sleep and steal your dreams.”
“Who are you?” Devor gasped. She spoke like a crazy person with gibberish rhymes. The woman stood no more than four foot tall with raven-black hair woven together in tiny braids that covered her body like a hoary gown. White skin the color of a frog’s belly glistened from a face radiant in the foggy light. Two gaping pits covered with skin appeared where her eyes should have been. She was obviously blind as she tapped the ground with a dripping stick that she’d been using to stir the large pot. “I am Banya,” she whispered, a toothless scowl breaking cracked lips. “Come closer that I might see you with my hands, pick the fruits of your dreams and squeeze fresh blood into my jams.”
“You are the one Andelka told me about! You know the dark shadow-secrets of the Zivot don’t you?” Until this moment Devor had thought of the old woman as just a scary story that didn’t really exist.
“Calamity births all tempers … be they present or past,” The blind Banya said with a twisted smile. “I am at your poor gyilkos (murderer) at your service … you have only to ask.” She snapped her fingers.
Fear and revulsion swept through every part of Devor’s body as he slowly approached the witch. He moved toward her against his will. Fish-heads and slimy bones floated to the top of the boiling pot and then suddenly began to swim as Banya started to laugh. Long bony fingers with fingernails like claws reached out for him. Fear rushed down his legs like cold rain … as she dragged him into the house.
TO BE CONTINUED …