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 didn’t know he’d been sleeping until the witch shook him awake. The inside of Banya’s house was a dark labyrinth of pots, books and kettles stacked into stalactite-like columns with narrow passages in between. The only light came from holes in a thatched roof casting beams of sickly yellow light on the littered floors. “I’ve been watching long … and expecting you,” the witch said leading Devor to an open area next to the kitchen that contained a bloated, flea-infested couch shedding last year’s stuffing like a brown itchy horse in springtime. “Do you insist on sugar …with your brew?”
Devor looked at the moldy furniture and thought he would rather stand. “I really can’t stay,” he muttered. “I stopped only for a drink from your well and must be leaving.”
Blind Banya spun about the room tapping her walking stick on the floor and gasped as if discovering it for the first time. “Flying cats! While my welcome faltered soft and rotten … looking for a cup. I have ignored, misplaced and forgotten … to tidy all things up!”
She rocked her fleshy head backward and opened her mouth in a terrific yawn. A gleaming blue and green translucent bubble apparently made of mucus, spittle and gastric sauces expanded from her throat like a balloon until it filled half the room and then burst. A bang like a crack of thunder shook the house. And before Devor’s ears stopped ringing, the moldy couch became a white settee supporting soft pillows sewn with golden thread. Luxurious white carpets covered the floors wall to wall and the garbage and litter was gone. A fire blazed cheerfully from a rock hearth.
Banya set two cups and a steaming kettle on a glass table with carved and gilded legs and smiled. “I serve two with your worries … both you must stay,” she said pushing Devor backward. He was trying to think of an objection when the soft pillows half-swallowed him. “Is fearing our Demilune … your only way?”
“That horrible Hun warlord has murdered all the people in my village and keeps the only girl I ever loved captive in his castle,” Devor moaned. “His armies are like the stars. What can I a simple woodcarver do?” The steaming cup before him smelled delicious. He wanted to drink but he was afraid. Banya looked at him and smiled showing green and rotten teeth … the smell suddenly became irresistible and so he lifted the cup and drank.
“All stars flee before the fires of daybreak’s early morning,” Banya cackled wiping Devor’s mouth with a bit of her woven hair. “Half-moon bakes his wedding plans to feed the cries of warning.” She was up dancing about the room now, waving her stick in the air like a wizard’s staff. Devor was a bit dizzy and felt as if he were in a dream.
A pop came from the hearth and a tiny chunk of burning wood flew outward and landed in the center of the room. A flash of fire scorched the white fabric and spread outward in all directions. “I hear the sound of saws,” she said cocking her head to one side and placing a claw-like hand to her ear. “Mallets, lumber, pound and pin. All new dwellings he constructs … with gates to keep them in.” Tiny houses and buildings began to appear in the dark circle around the smoldering ember … a new tiny village was being constructed in the center of the room complete with the castle Andelka was imprisoned in, and all of it perched on the cushion of a chair.
“I know Demilune plans to rebuild the village with an army of slaves that he kept alive for that purpose,” Devor said remembering what the man cleaning up the rubble had told him as he watched tiny buildings springing up like grass between the furniture. “I don’t see how I can stop him or force him to release my love and his soon-to-be bride from her dead father’s castle.”
Banya picked up the tiny piece of smoldering wood, representing the Zivot from the center of the miniature village. She scraped away part of the charcoal showing a tiny bit of unburned wood. “All things gone that linger still … are never what they seem.” She cackled. “Bring what remains of Gifting Tree … and you shall have your dream.”
The witch turned the tiny chunk of burnt and slightly glowing wood around in her clawed hands and peered closely at it from all directions. Then she uncorked a bottle from a dusty shelf and gulped it down in a dozen gurgling swallows. She belched and then slowly breathed vile fumes on what remained of the wood and it burst into flames.
She flung the burning wood into the midst of the tiny village and first one, then a dozen, and then all the miniature houses were in flames. “He pays his army flesh and blood … all murderers for hire,” Banya whispered as she approached Devor. Her skin-covered eye sockets were wide and shimmering like distorted moons reflected from the watery bottom of a deep well. She pulled him from the couch and flung him toward the door. “Bring to me the Zivot tree … to quench his life with fire.”
Devor stumbled out of the smoking cottage coughing and a moment later Banya slammed the door behind him. A full moon peered from behind dark clouds and then slowly crept across the sky. After he found some bushes and vomited behind them, his head began to clear. The forest was deathly quiet and the cottage behind him looked like it had been deserted for ages. No smoke came from the roof or from any window. In the distance he thought he could faintly hear the sound of saws and hammers. “I’ll do anything to rescue Andelka,” Devor vowed to the darkness as he wiped his mouth and walked toward the village.
Devor was less than half a mile from the village and the sound of hammers and saws was much louder. He was wondering how he was going to be able to retrieve what remained of the Zivot tree in the town square with so many soldiers and workers around when he was almost ran down by a team of six horses pulling a wagon loaded with a dozen large barrels. The man driving the wagon pulled to a stop as Devor extracted himself from a clump of thorny bushes and introduced himself as Charva. Devor noticed the driver wore a white cloth tied on his sleeve. “You’re not going into the village without one of these on your arm are you?” Charva asked touching the rag. “You will certainly be killed on sight.”
“I’m not one of Demilune’s slaves,” Devor told him brushing himself off. “I’d rather die than serve the man who murdered my friends and relatives.”
“No one serves the Half Moon Lord willingly,” Charva said looking grim. “I lost two brothers and their families. These barrels are filled with highly potent Cerevisia. The soldiers plan to have a celebration as soon as the new village is complete which should be tonight. Many of the residents that were spared have been working day and night to finish. Everyone is afraid that when they are no longer needed Demilune will allow his soldiers to kill them for sport. After the soldiers are muddled from these extra strong spirits I plan to smuggle out as many slaves as possible in the empty barrels.
“Then count me in,” Devor told him climbing onto the wagon.
“Then you had better put this on,” Charva said handing him a piece of white cloth. “I wouldn’t want my new assistant shot on sight.”
Devor was astonished when they rolled into his hometown. Where once charred and blackened foundations and a few sooty timbers were all that remained of the hamlet a new village had been constructed complete with a stable, Inn and a tiny church. “This town looks better than I ever remember it,” Charva gasped.
“Except for the people,” Devor told him. A greatly reduced number of half-starved citizens were once again cleaning up and a few were putting finishing touches and paint on the buildings. “Why go to all this bother to restore a village when you’ve already burned it once?”
“The lady Andelka whom Demilune keeps prisoner vowed not to become his bride unless her village was spared. This is his monstrous way of deceiving her.” Charva said pointing to the castle on the hill.
“How is Half Moon going to replace that?” Devor pointed to the blackened tree stump in the town square.
“Demilune has a thousand men digging-up another Juhar tree from the forest and transporting it here.” Charva said as a group of thirsty soldiers ran toward the wagon. “The only reason that stump remains is because all the villagers refuse to touch it.”
“It won’t be the same without the Zivot,” Devor said. “No other tree in the world has the same magical powers.”
“It’s just as well,” Charva growled as a soldier yanked him from the wagon and he and Devor were forced to unload the barrels and open them. He looked at the charred stump with distain. “I curse even what remains of that tree. The magic of the damned source of pain and terror has failed this village and all the people in it.”
Judging by the position of the moon in the darkened sky it was nearing midnight when the last barrel of Cerevisia was emptied and the last of Demilune’s drunken soldiers finally collapsed on the ground. Only a handful of terrified villagers remained huddled inside the church; many had been killed for sport during the boisterous celebration.
Charva helped the few remaining villagers hide in the empty barrels he and Devor had stacked on the wagon, and then he went looking for others. Devor used his absence to carry the charred remains of the Zivot tree and place it in a barrel near the back of the wagon.
“There are no more …. Alive!” Charva told him when he returned. Devor thought the man’s face resembled the color of his dead mother’s clean sheets and when he gazed in the distance he knew why. Moonlight showed the bodies of villagers hanging from every lamppost on the winding road that led to the castle.
Charva wasted no time whipping the team of horses to frenzy as they thundered out of the village filled with slumbering soldiers. It wasn’t until they passed the guards stationed at the town gate, who demanded that the barrels be refilled and brought back, that Devor was able to breathe. “If you don’t mind can you drive past the cottage of Banya and drop me and what remains of the Zivot there,” he asked patting the barrel with the burnt stump in it.
“Banya is a witch,” Charva thundered. “No better than Demilune! I want you and that godless stump of misery out at once!” He flung Devor from the wagon and then rolled the barrel with the charred remains of the tree from the wagon’s tailgate.
Devor opened the barrel and had just started to drag the stump through the forest toward Banya’s cottage when he heard a large company of soldiers thundering down the road. The screams of villagers and Charva’s own anguished cries told him all including the horses were being slain.
It would have been almost impossible to drag the charred stump through the forest, what remained of the burnt roots kept snagging in the brambles, but a bleeding horse, dragging a harness and broken reins and with an arrow grazed in its side ran past and stopped just beyond him. Devor discovered the animal was not too badly hurt and after calming it, rode on to the witch’s cottage with the burnt wood strapped to the horse’s back.
Banya was pleased to see Devor return with what remained of the magical Zivot. She set him to work at once carving a marionette out of what remained of the wood. Devor had seen the strange puppets operated by strings in the city and tried to follow her instructions. “The face must be of Demilune … with fingers grasping, stout!” she chanted. “With eyes that look for blood to let … and lips that pleasure shout! “ She paused to catch her breath and then went on. “With magic dark … and magic light … and unknown fate to bend the night!”
Devor carved a round head that resembled Demilune’s bald one and painted it a fleshy red. He made a sneering mouth that he remembered and was about to paint on some yellow eyes when Banya stopped him. “Leave but holes inside his head … for places which to see. The eyes that gaze on conquered worlds will … surely come from me.”
He looked at the blind woman and shook his head. The witch had no eyes of her own. He didn’t know how she was going to supply them for the puppet, but he complied and carved out two sockets in the strange scornful face. Banya took the marionette into her cottage to finish it, sending Devor on numerous errands to fetch string, bits of cloth and other things. Devor noticed with horror one evening, when he returned and caught the witch sleeping, a pair of intact eyes staring at him from inside a glass bottle filled with a foul smelling liquid on a dusty shelf. It looked as if the witch had blinded herself sometime before he arrived … she really had been expecting him. And after that time he always found a reason to sleep outdoors.
Devor mostly waited outside for the witch to finish. She forbade him to watch what she was doing. As he sat under the moon one evening fingering his mother’s ring which he wore on a chain around his neck and looking at the wood scraps left from the Zivot he suddenly remembered picking the leaf with Andelka’s name on it. He still had to make a present for her. He decided there was just enough wood left from the charred tree to carve her a small box that she could keep her most treasured items in. Over the next two days he secretly fashioned the box and then carved every magical symbol he knew on it with the name Ombré on the front, which meant the coming of darkness, because of the unknown properties of the tree’s shadow. He only hoped that whatever Banya was doing would be successful and that he could rescue his love before she became Demilune’s bride.
Devor grew impatient with the waiting and was gathering all his possessions when he saw smoke coming from the cottage and heard Banya’s shrill voice. He quickly placed the Ombré box into a bag on the horse’s back. “A new terror walks the land … new fear to conquer old.” The witch cackled. “Burning wood and fire brands … that I might be so bold.”
Banya was hanging from the rafters when he burst through the door. Strings stretched from a cross of wood in her hands to where the marionette made in the image of Demilune strutted through a miniature replica of the village on the floor below. A lighted firebrand clutched in the puppet’s hand fired each building as the dancing monster swept through the village. “Boiling water, flesh and bone … cut to flowing ink!” the witch chanted as the puppet set fire to each building. “The blood that pours to quench his thirst … is forever mine to drink!”
“No!” Devor screamed as the puppet holding the burning piece of wood strutted toward the tiny castle sitting on a chair to resemble the hill. “Andelka is locked in there! She will die!”
“Better for love to vanish in flames … than to slowly burn with time.” Banya replied. “Better you promise your box to me … for all things will be mine!”
She knew about the box he had carved!
Devor ran to the witch’s kitchen and came back with a large knife used to chop cabbage. He cut the strings of the marionette and it fell to the floor. Banya’s eyes popped out of the puppet and rolled across the floor and were taken by two mangy rats into a hole in the wall. Devor scooped up the eyeless marionette and ran with the bundle toward his horse. “You fool!” Banya cursed at him from the rafters and as she jumped to the floor. “There is more holding Andelka than just a room … a door with bars and stone! Return to me my strings of power … or you shall be alone!” She was on her hands and knees searching for her eyes as he mounted the horse.
Devor could still hear the witch’s screams as he rode away … a glow on the horizon told him that indeed his ravaged homeland, that had just been rebuilt, was once again becoming ash.
The village was a raging inferno when Devor galloped into the town square. Demilune’s soldiers were running in all directions fleeing for their lives. Devor noticed the murderous Hun Warlord that everyone had called Half Moon lying in the village square where the Zivot tree had once stood; he was burned almost beyond recognition. Devor turned and thundered up the winding road to the castle. Hungry flames were already licking the walls He fought his way through smoke and flames and forced the horse to climb the winding stairs that led to the highest tower. The entire stone structure was becoming hot like an oven. Suddenly he could hear Andelka’s anguished cries coming from behind an iron door. “Help me!” she screamed. Devor jumped from the horse and beat on the door but it was locked and wouldn’t budge.
“I can’t get inside to save you!” he lamented as he collapsed outside the heavy door.
“Devor is that you?” Andelka’s voice came from behind the door. “I knew that you would come for me!”
“I fear I am too late!” he said. “But I will never leave you. Where ever the smoke and flames take you there I will go too.”
Andelka was quiet for a moment and then she whispered between coughing from the smoke. “If only we could slip into the shade of the Zivot tree and let fate take a chance!”
Devor knew the tree was gone forever but he suddenly remembered the carved box he had made for her from the magical wood. Anything placed inside it would surely be in Zivot’s shadow he reasoned since it was covered by enchanted wood on all sides. He looked around for something small enough to place in the Ombré box and then he remembered his mother’s wedding ring. He took the golden band from around his neck and placed it in the box as he said a silent prayer. He remembered the words his mother had spoken to him two years before. “You can’t control the wind,” she had told him. “It blows where it will.”
The hopeless woodcarver decided to accept whatever fate had in store for him as he opened the box. A golden key lay where the ring had once been. He held his breath as he tried it in the lock …. and the door opened. Andelka kissed him as he pulled her onto the prancing horse behind him and they thundered down the stairs and through the smoke and raging flames. Somehow he knew they both were going to make it.
Andelka’s gift to him turned out to be a baby girl that they named Melna a year later. The village had once more been rebuilt and a new tree had been planted in the public square. The witch’s powers had been broken. Devor and Andelka were both so very happy and prosperous living in the rebuilt castle on the hill that they soon forgot about the Ombré box and the marionette made to look like Demilune. Both objects lay in a chest in a dark dusty corner of the castle’s dungeon.
But Banya hadn’t forgotten, and when she learned that Devor and Andelka were going on holiday to Rome she convinced a band of wandering gypsies one foggy morning to break into the castle and bring her the puppet … and the box. She told them about a secret entrance beneath the stone structure. “Six golden coins I’ll give to you … and pleasure all your days. If you will bring the box to me … and puppet through the haze.” The old blind woman told them.
The band of gypsies agreed but craftily persuaded Banya to give them the six coins first. After they retrieved the carved Ombré and the marionette plus all the loot from the castle they could carry, they left the village by another road and vanished into the forest. They were never seen again … at least not in this story.
But the box and the puppet emerged from time to time in many different hands and under different circumstances. They were always close by when they appeared, century after century, never one without the other. They were both carved from the same enchanted tree … good and bad like all things in the universe … with magic dark … and magic light … and unknown fate to bend the night.