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A Collection of SoulsTales of Terror, Delight, and Magic
By J. C. MILLER
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 J. C. Miller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Curse Of Two Dragons Manor
In the fall the wind still hisses and howls through the pine trees above the old manor house, now the country home of a business man and politician from Warsaw. It is the same wind that has sung its mysteries across the cold lake in front of the place, the same wind that has spoken its warnings to the valley below for over eight centuries where so many have labored in the fields, birthed children, sought the powers of local healers when sick, and died with prayers upon their lips for something better in the next world. The valley was once a rich and verdant place, which was why the Count's people originally came from West Prussia to live and take dominion over the peasants who tilled the soil. They became his serfs, his property when he purchased the land. He would take from them a share of their labors and agree to protect them with his knights in times of conflict. But his kind would struggle over the next century to keep and rule the lands they appropriated. They would look in dismay as more peasants chose to leave the land, join one of the Crusades in the name of the Church, and then return with eyes opened to a world of commerce and new opportunity. Few who left the land would return to it. And so, a time of great turmoil began, full of political intrigue, full of religion and full of magic, full of hopeful souls and rife with evil villains. Local legend has it that after the arrival of the Count a coincidence of events conspired to lay a great curse upon the valley that deepened as each generation of the Ordov family rose to supplant the last. Some say the curse still lies in wait.
The girl called Adrianna was the liveliest of the twins born to the peasant woman, Celestina, and her husband, and so the midwife, Old Baba, a conjuror and crone known for her secretive and magical ways, chose Adrianna as payment for services. Ania, the calmer of the two girls, remained with her mother. This arrangement seemed fair at the time. Celestina and Miroslav were poor serfs who worked the land on Count Ordov's manor. A male heir would have eventually relieved some of their burden of labor. A female heir would be accepted and loved, but offer unlikely future recompense. Twin girls would offer only greater scarcity of means for the young family. So, Adrianna was to go live with Old Baba, learn the ways of herbs and conjuring, and assure the old crone an heir of her own.
Old Baba had only one demand—that Celestina and Miroslav never make mention of Adrianna, nor make any future claims regarding the child. Adrianna would forever remain the charge of the witch, who, after all, seemed to have the best of intentions to heal and protect the families in the valley. "Trust Old Baba—you cannot care for the two girls and have any but scarcer means." This was the tenth day after their birth, and Baba had come once again from her home in the hills down the path along the edge of the turnip field and through the gate to minister to their health and the mother's recovery. She had come again in her hooded cape, with her walking staff, and with her herbs and chants and spells. She was nothing like the image of the wrinkled, hook-nosed hag that has come to be associated with the witches of her time. She was not in the extremities of old age. Her skin was still smooth. Her mind was quick. Her hand was firm. Her smile was warm.
Celestina was up and about with her duties in the hut. As the day drew near to part with Adrianna, she had second thoughts. "How can I part with my own flesh? And how can I choose which to let go?" she tearfully beseeched Old Baba.
The witch paused to measure her words. "You cannot pay me in other ways. I would not scourge you if you paid me not a penny," she replied at last, "but this is the way of good fortune for both girls, as well as for you and Miroslav. Trust Old Baba—Ania will be the most beautiful child in the valley and find rich reward in the man she marries. Adrianna will learn all I can teach her and gain powers beyond my own to heal pain and disease and know the ways of magic."
And so it was done. Baba carried Adrianna back up the path with her. The baby cooed and made no complaint, for Baba was a gentle soul. The mother would not see her child again for many years.
The estate was laid out over the valley like a lopsided multicolored quilt, some plots larger than others, according to the wishes of Count Bazyli Ordov. Some were green with leaves of kale. Some were stitched in rows of brown and gold, alternating rows of sod and wheat or rye grasses. Others were embroidered with the broad red-veined leaves of beets. The land worked by Ania's parents was among the smaller plots. But an enclosure allowed them to raise goats and a milk cow. Miroslav and Celestina grew turnips and beets, and a variety of other vegetables for their own consumption. They traded portions of their share of the harvest for other necessities in the Saturday market. A few chickens strutted around the place, made their nests in the rafters with thatch pecked down from the ceiling, and offered an egg or two each week for their keep. The cow and two goats slept in a stall next to the wall of the hut that was set against the prevailing breeze. Their bodies provided some warmth for the family during winter after the cooking hearth cooled and the young family retired. Meals were supplemented by an occasional rabbit or mole that made its way into the fields.
Once Miroslav drew down on a deer with his bow, as it browsed among the beet tops, but Celestina pulled at his shoulder and forbade him to shoot the animal—"The Lord will see us hanged as poachers!" she remonstrated. And so, during the hungry winter time of Ania's fourth year, the couple struggled to feed themselves and their thin little girl. The snow was deep and the wind was very bitter that season.
Ania was, as the meaning of her name suggested, a graceful and beautiful child with long black hair and large almond-shaped eyes, and a magical, musical way with her voice and gestures. In a very short time she brought the family favor in the eyes of neighbors, especially Count Ordov who rode out to survey his lands each week.
"I have a little boy, Edmund, who needs a playmate," he offered one day, and with the permission allowed him because of his rank, he took the little five-year-old up onto his saddle and bore her off across the bridge to his keep and spacious grounds. "Don't worry. One of my men will bring her back in the morning," he assured her fretful mother with a dismissive wave of his hand.
This was in the early fall. Miroslav was away gathering firewood for winter, for the Count had given all his subjects permission to gather wood in his forests above the manor. The manor would also draw on Miroslav's labors. He would cart a portion of the wood across the bridge and into the yard of the manor. In the same way, Miroslav and Celestina worked the Lord's plots in spring and early fall in exchange for the land they cultivated and the protection they would receive if marauders from the east came around.
The Lord's keep was not exactly a castle, nor was it simply a large house. The place was built along the up-sloping shore of a tarn above the fields, its grounds carefully arranged with sheds and outbuildings that housed servants and livestock and stored grain in the best way to discourage rats. An open stone shed adjoined the main house. A large hearth and kiln was set against the wall of the house. It served the needs of the smith, who tended his bellows and maintained armaments and weapons while caring for the horses. It also served as a place where other workers made stoneware for the kitchen and bricks to expand the house and perimeter walls. Good stone was available for foundations, but was much harder to shape for building up the ramparts. The beams of which the walls were constructed would in time need to be replaced with something more durable and defensible, while the roof of the place was pitched with beams and planks and covered with tiles. The only structure purely stone was a burial vault built outside the compound near the bridge across the moat.
Count Ordav's father before him had come east from West Prussia and purchased the acreage to build the original structures. His father named the manor Zwei Drachen, which means "Two Dragons", in honor of both the family dragon crest and his twin who was slain during the Fifth Crusade. When the manor house and courtyard were laid out, his men set to work with work horses to plow and dredge out the moat that ran from the edge of the tarn, around the property and back again to the pond. They hauled stone and timbers from the woods on the rise behind the property to build the bridge across the ditch at the back. Altogether, a most defensible home, but lacking in the finery and craft of castles like those at Walbrzych and even Konigsberg. Konigsberg, itself built mostly of timbers, was more spacious, well appointed, and afforded a strong defense for the sea-faring crowd that called the place their fortress.
It was Konigsberg that figured most into the ultimate fates of the two families—Ordav's and Miroslav's. Bazyli Ordov's red-haired son Edmund and Ania seemed destined to be always together. Each weekend, Bazyli arrived on horseback to swoop Ania away to his compound, where the two children ran and played along the banks of tarn. They made boats from leaves, small rafts of sticks and vine. Once a frog leaped up on one of their rafts and sailed out of sight through the moss and duckweed like a barge master on his way down the Vistula. "Someday we'll go with him to see the sights!" Edmund offered. Together, they picked pink chamaerion blossoms, yellow ranunculus and pink and purple storczyk, varieties of orchids that thrived there. They often brought clusters of mint and lovely bouquets for the cook whose helper would place them out on the tables. The white water hemlock was very pretty too. They pulled off clusters, held them upside down and thought of them as wedding gowns for fairies. They imagined the high buzz of mosquitos, kept off their skin with camphor oil, to be the joyful voices of these winged sprites. Once they brought hemlock clusters into the kitchen with their other treasures, only to have the cook forbid them in the household. "They are pretty, yes children, but very poisonous! Leave them on the doorstep!" And he made them wash their hands again and again before allowing them to eat the soup he boiled and the bread he baked.
The children grew, and time brought the coincidence of young love and the call to Konigsberg for Bazyli, as all his vassals hastened forth to campaign against the pagans of Lithuania, following their repudiation of Christianity. Bazyli, a Teutonic Knight, set forth in the name of his father and the old Livonian Order and in the name of the Pope to resettle problems in the lands to the east. Accompanied by three young seconds, one bearing the dragon standard, he set out with eight knights from around the valley, and three other warriors from his household. Domed helmets, hauberk capes and swords clamored at their sides. Their white surcoats with black crosses billowed like thunder clouds in the breeze, as their horses galloped away.
Four of the knights and two of Ordav's own men would in time return, dragging their dead Lord home on a bier of pine boughs and vine, his shield tied to his chest. The wedding of his son would take place in the shadow of his sacrifice.
"Ich liebe die!" Edmund was seventeen, untested in battle, a new vassal in liege to the king, but charged to his father's lieutenant, Wilhelm, who, ignoring the mooning and sighs of his young charge, began the future Count's training while the senior Ordov was away.
"And I love you also," replied Ania in the tongue she had spoken in her early childhood. She was now fifteen, the pride of her parents, who no longer worked the Count's lands, nor tithed at each harvest. Since Ania's tenth birthday and her betrothal to Edmund, they supervised the tithes of other families who worked the fields and saw to home crafts important to the manor—candle making, dress making, supervision of kiln work and tool making. She and her parents no longer slept on cloth sacks filled with straw, but stayed in the main house of the manor.
With the Count's blessing, Miroslav also took it upon himself to construct a spinning wheel and a loom in one of the out buildings. His parents had been weavers until they were killed in a pagan raid. Miroslav dreamed of restoring the family's craft under the auspices of his benefactor and buying back the freedom he lost as a child. And so was born a cottage industry that would benefit both Miroslav's family and Ordov, as herders and harvesters came around to sell their wool and flax. Their cloth soon found its way south to Walbrzych and north to towns along the Vistula River.
Within two years, again with Count Ordov's blessing, Miroslav and Celestina moved some distance away near Wroclaw to establish a mill near the Odra River. There they trained other workers and began to share profits with their benefactor. Ania stayed on with the Count and Madam Ordov for a year until the new mill was built. She joined her parents after her sixteenth birthday. Edmund would make weekly visits to see Ania, accompanied by two of his father's men, and in time would go there to court his betrothed in earnest.
"I love him, and he has proposed our marriage! His father is away at war, but his mother has set the date as head of the manor in his father's place." It was then that Miroslav and Celestina decided to leave the mill under the supervision of their master weaver and go with Ania to Zwei Drachen to await Count Ordov's promised return at the beginning of summer. Anticipating the event, Celestina supervised the making of white laces and brocades to dress her daughter like a fairy princess for the wedding day, and on their arrival she set to work with scissors, needles and thread to fashion the gown. For dowry, Miroslav brought many yards of heavy cloth to dress the manor house windows with the finest drapes and colorful damasks to cover the tables.
"Where should I put the fresh personal linens mistress?" The new servant girl was about Ania's age. She wore a patch on her left eye. Her long dark hair fell partly across her face. She dragged her left foot as she entered the room with the new linen under garments. The right corner of her mouth drooped unnaturally, as though snagged with a fish hook. Her speech was forced and slurred.
"Put them on the low shelf in the wardrobe with the old ones—but on second thought...." Ania went to the wardrobe and pulled out several old breaches and an underdress. She tossed the underdress and two of the breaches onto a chair. "I no longer need these. Take them away. But for the rest, please see they are put in pans of water in the sun for a day to whiten."
The girl put the new things away, finished tidying the room and then left with the old linens, holding the door as Ania's mother came into the room.
"Who is that woeful creature?" Ania's mother did not look at Ania, but stared after the strange servant girl dragging her foot along the stones of the corridor.
"That's Fortuna. She came begging for soup and Lady Ordov took her in just last week. She is recently orphaned and had no place to go, so she serves as chamber maid—and my new attendant!" Ania gloated, for she still remembered the first time Count Ordav had come around to fetch her home to Edmund—her a poor peasant child.
"I'd watch my things, all the same, now that you have things to watch, though the maid seems sincere." Celestina frowned and then mused, "Fortuna—an odd name for a destitute orphan."
Ania agreed. "Fortuna, yes—'lucky one'"
A strange and uncomfortable time, full of mixed emotions: The Count was brought home the next day and the household would not be consoled for weeks. The friar who would have been fetched from the monastery on the cross roads from Wroclaw and Walbrzych to marry Edmund and Ania, was sent for instead to fulfill the solemn duty of preparing the elder Ordov's soul for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. At the same time, the holy man would be asked to stay on six weeks more to celebrate the subsequent union of the new count and his bride. And troubadours and musicians had to be enlisted to follow on.
It was finally Lady Ordov, who eased the planning of the two ceremonies. "How much the Count would have wanted to be here to see the beginning of your new family," she told Edmund. "In his stead, I will throw off black for your marriage in six weeks' time, and resume my mourning thereafter. Your father will bless your union from on high."
Miroslav volunteered to set out for the monastery after he conferred with Edmund and Lady Ordov on the calendaring of the two ceremonies. In this way, he could also inspect orders and work in the mill and inform the master weaver of new delays. And he would be lucky to find in Wroclaw the itinerant entertainers the wedding party required, for the Midsummer festival of St. John was under way. While Miroslav was gone, Ordav's body would lie in state in the family crypt, accepting prayers and visits from family and comrades, awaiting the friar's later blessings, prayers, incense and the tolling of bells to send him on his way to heaven.
Excerpted from A Collection of Souls by J. C. MILLER Copyright © 2012 by J. C. Miller. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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