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In the fall of 1462, a virulent plague swept through the land surrounding the Dark Citadel, the stronghold of Count Milos. No respecter of rank, the dreaded sickness struck indiscriminately, carrying off noble boyars keeping to their luxurious quarters, fully as often as it killed peasants laboring in the fields. Ariane's parents succumbed, as did the Count: a shrewd old warrior who had ruled his small, isolated, but productive demesne with an iron hand.
At the moment that Milos rasped his final words to the four sons surrounding the old man's bed in an imposing chamber within the Dark Citadel, Ariane wept bitter tears over the body of her mother, who survived her husband by only thirty hours. Even as sorrow flayed the only child of two prominent members of the native Wallachian aristocracy, she rejoiced that her mother had died comforted by her certainty that her sister Florika would care for the orphaned fourteen-year-old girl during these dangerous times.
A maid as intelligent and independent-minded as she was modest and virginal, Ariane judged herself spared for a lofty purpose. Obedient to an inner directive, she joined the Sisterhood of Healers ruled by Florika. That doughty dame trained her followers in ancient lore handed down for generations from mother to daughter--from withered crone to fresh young girl. Although raised by parents possessed of a taste for luxury, the youthful healer habitually dressed in the severe gray habit and white wimple denoting her calling: a vocation that differed from that of a nun only in the nature of the vows. Innately compassionate, she took pride in her ability to help the sick and theunfortunate.
Count Milos went to whatever judgment awaited him without ever suspecting that his four sons would concentrate their energies not on war, nor even on knightly pursuits such as hunting or jousting, but on indulgence in sensuality taken to a degree hitherto unparalleled in the experience of the men of their House. The subjects rendered uneasy by the death of the Count discovered that the new holders of power ruled the fiefdom surrounding the Dark Citadel in seeming amity, dividing responsibility for various aspects of governance, and increasing the wealth inherited from their sire.
That amazing hoard of golden ducats represented the profits from trading ventures conducted during the family's voluntary exile among the infidels during the bloody, six-year-long reign of Vlad Dracula, the Impaler: the cruel prince recently imprisoned by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, who shortly thereafter installed Radu the Handsome, brother of the Impaler, as Voivode of Wallachia. The universally welcomed change of rulers proved as beneficial to the four Lords as it did to the populace so recently decimated by the mass executions staged by one of the most murderous despots ever to hold sway over a nation.
Ten years after her induction into the Sisterhood, Ariane wore her authority like a mantle, and her beauty like a veil. Her manner forbade the eyes of the crude peasant men, whose ailments she treated, to pierce that veil. The highborn woman living a life of unselfish service commanded the respect of battle-scarred knights, grim men-at-arms, and hard-eyed foresters in the service of Lord Gregory, as readily as she won the trust of the roughly clad peasants toiling on the land, or the merchants striving to prosper amid the periodic battles that so often led to foraging troops' pillaging the walled town.
The mature self-possession habitually distinguishing the woman of twenty-four served her well at this crucial juncture. With easy grace, Ariane sat the mule bearing her at a good clip towards the stronghold of the Turkish Pasha who ruled the lands to the southeast of the Dark Citadel.
That alien domination, the healer knew, coexisted with the accord Radu the Handsome had forged with the Turks during the prior year. For the most part, that agreement kept those still-dangerous infidel enemies off Wallachian soil. Certain boyars, however, freely chose to offer allegiance to the Sultan rather than risk death or enslavement during the raids still launched by marauding Turks who crossed the Danube to attack strongholds located along Wallachia's southern border. The Pasha impatiently awaiting her arrival, she musingly reminded herself, ruled a demesne located within the borders of Wallachia.
Although the contingent of infidel warriors forced Ariane and three younger healers to accompany them, they yet addressed with grave courtesy the authoritative leader of the group, whose dedication to an ideal of learning and service they revered. Unable to equal her serene unflappability, her subordinates failed to hide their profound apprehension, although they dared not voice a single querulous complaint. Her head held high, her shapely body erect, Ariane remained wrapped in an invulnerable armor of queenly dignity as she rode.
A high-ranking servant conducted her to the chamber wherein lay the Pasha.
"Excellency, what malady afflicts you?" she asked upon being escorted into the presence of the gaunt patriarch, noting that Mahmoud's sunken eyes burned in the face ominously betraying the shape of the skull beneath. Dying , the healer judged unerringly, if silently. Kneeling beside the divan upon which the old man reclined, she courteously consulted with his attendants before laying her hands on her patient.
Expert fingers located and palpated the cancerous mass distending the otherwise shrunken belly. The woman's eyes, clear as a pool reflecting the azure blue of the vaulted sky, met those of the dying warrior. "When the Almighty summons, one must obey," she told the sufferer forthrightly. "I can lessen the pain you bear with such fortitude, but I cannot prolong the life I'd assuredly save if I could."
No anger, no outrage leaped into the still-imperious visage of the patriarch. "Death comes when God wills," he acknowledged fatalistically. "Mix me the remedy, O Healer Revered Among the People, and receive my gratitude."
Ariane knelt by the couch, holding the cup containing a potent narcotic to the lips of the dying man, when the raiding force commanded by Count Alexander's vassal Sir Bogdan burst through the entry opened by treachery. Swiftly, the invaders cut down the stunned warriors rallying so as to defend their dying lord. Shrieks rose above the clash of arms and the thud of falling bodies. The tread of booted feet underscored the shouts and war cries reverberating down the hall.
A broad shouldered Wallachian knight brutally dispatched the stately warrior seeking to prevent the raiders' entry into the chamber occupied by the Pasha. Seconds later, the two men-at-arms flanking their leader slew the unarmed servants in attendance on the dying Turk.
Outraged, Ariane shielded her patient with her body even as she boldly fronted her countryman. "I forbid you to strike!" she hissed. "God will soon call this man to judgment!"
The woman's courage penetrated even the fog of battle glazing the eyes of the knight, but failed to stay his hand. Roughly, he flung her aside. A sword already crimson pierced the wasted body of the Pasha, who cursed his killer even as he died.
A hand of iron withdrew the dripping blade. Pausing only to wipe it contemptuously on the robe of the dead Turk, the man in command turned to the two subordinates contending to see who first violated the woman from whose body they had together ripped wimple and gown. Struggling impotently in their grip, Ariane protested with desperate vehemence in the Wallachian tongue, to no avail.
Sir Bogdan's hand landed like an eagle's talon on the shoulder of the man claiming first right of entry. That individual he sent sprawling. The second attacker caught a buffet to the ear that hurled him across the prone body of his fellow.
"This succulent prize will serve your betters, not you!" the aggressor roared, his eyes blazing. "She's worth ten golden ducats, if she's worth an obol! Content yourselves with the servants of the infidels, you lust-blinded fools!"
Standing stark naked before the knight, Ariane cried heatedly, "I'm a loyal subject of the four Lords!"
Copyright © 2007 Alexandra Adams.