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by Bill Bowler

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Chapter 3: The Shadow in the Mirror

part 3 of 3

Yanosh Straker hunts monsters for a living. He’s stumbled on a nest of them and is tracking them down, one by one, and eliminating them. One young man, Josey, is terrified to discover that Straker is after him for some reason. Josey runs, but his world seems to be changing. His old life is fading and a new, confusing, unreal existence seems to be opening up before him

As darkness filled the valley, Vladimir III, alone this time, rode up once again to the small cottage in the forest. He dismounted, tied his horse, and opened the low door of the shack. The same revolting odor filled his nostrils as the last time he had come.

The old crone and the little girl were at the table, peering into the large globe resting on the carved hand. The old woman looked up to see Vladimir III standing in the doorway.

“Welcome, Count. We are honored that you grace us with your presence again.”

Vladimir III threw his hunting sack on the table. “What is it you see in that cursed globe, witch?”

“A reflection of the past that was, a shadow of a future that might be, one among many.”

The hag opened the sack. One by one, she took out the items and examined them. “Yes, a fine long juicy fang, that one. Full of venom. And look at these feathers. White as snow. And this swift hoof. Good, very good. Fine specimens. And look at this faithful heart. It almost seems to be beating still. Fresh. The potion will be powerful.”

The witch covered the globe with a rag. Then she spread the items from the sack out on the table and hobbled to the fireplace. She stirred the foul brew simmering in the cauldron and took a long knife that hung from a strap on the chimney.

One by one, she plucked the white feathers from the owl’s wing and stirred them into the pot. Then she held the viper’s head above the cauldron and squeezed three drops of venom from each curved fang. Muttering incantations under her breath, she pulled hairs from the wolf pelt and sprinkled them into the bubbling cauldron. “Zakrebat volok, strakh oborotyen, dai Upwyr...

She placed a flat stone on the table and put the deer hoof in the center. Taking a smooth stone from the hearth ledge, she struck the hoof three times. Chips and pieces broke off at each blow. The old witch gathered the pieces, placed them in a mortar and ground them into powder. She sprinkled the powder into the cauldron.

She then took the dog heart and placed it on the flat stone on the table. Then she diced the dog heart and stirred the pieces into the cauldron, as if cooking some vile stew.

A foul smell filled the room as the witch stirred in herbs from jars on the shelf and the stew bubbled in the pot. The old crone dipped a ladle, blew on it, and took a sip.

“It’s ready.”

She took a goatskin flask from a chimney shelf, filled it with the foul concoction, and handed the flask to Vladimir III.

“Take this, Count. It possesses the forms and powers of the forest. This is enough to make invincible warriors of three men. But take heed. It affects each person in different ways. Some are changed physically and become men who look like animals. Some are changed only mentally and become animals who look like men. The potion is strong. It takes very little, a few drops.

“Of course, the more one drinks, the greater the changes that take place. But if one person drank it all, the transformation, physical and mental, would be complete and not reversible. The warrior who drinks this potion need no longer fear iron or lead. Only silver can harm a man or woman enchanted by this potion.

“But beware, the changes and powers of this enchantment attach to the soul and travel with it. The powers are transferred through the generations to your children, and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren. There is no going back once the journey is begun. The first step decides all.”

Vladimir III took the flask and fastened it to his belt. Without a further word, he turned and left.

The crone went back to the simmering cauldron, dipped the ladle in again, blew across the steaming liquid, and poured a serving with chunks of meat into a small wooden bowl. She placed it on the table with spoon.

“Sonyechka,” she called, “come here, my child. Supper is ready.”

* * *

Yanosh and Josip were playing in the castle corridors. Squealing with laughter, Yanosh was chasing Josip down a dark hallway. Josip raced around a corner, bolted through a doorway, and found himself in the great dining hall. He ducked under the long table as Yanosh raced into the room after him. Yanosh, panting from the exertion, collapsed laughing into one of the great armchairs that lined the long table. Josip’s head appeared from under the table.

“We’re not supposed to be in here!” gasped Yanosh.

“I know,” laughed Josip. “But there’s no one here at this hour. I thought you might not follow.”

“You can’t get away so easily,” said Yanosh.

Josip came out and sat across from Yanosh. Both boys were panting, regaining their breath, when they heard voices approaching in the hallway.

Yanosh jumped up. “We’ve got to hide!”

The boys slipped behind the great curtains that covered the tall window at the end of the hall.

The witch had said the flask contained enough potion to make invincible warriors of three men. Vladimir III had summoned his two most trusted bodyguards: Mihu, the strongest of his men, and Nicolae, the most faithful and trustworthy.

The three men came into the great dining hall and sat at the end of the long table with Vladimir III at the head. Three places had been set. An unpleasant odor wafted through the high ceilinged room as Vladimir took the cap from a goatskin flask and poured a vile concoction into bowls set before the three men.

Vladimir spoke first. “The Ottoman army is approaching our valley. We are vastly outnumbered.”

“We’ll take one hundred of them to Hell with each one of us,” said Mihu grimly.

“Maybe we can tip the scales,” said Vladimir III. “This witch’s brew grants powers to warriors who drink it.”

“I don’t believe a word that old fool says,” said Nicolae, stroking his red beard. “I’d rather cut her throat and feed her to the dogs than drink her poison.”

“Not so, Nikko,” said Vladimir III. “The witch may be mad but she’s possessed of infernal knowledge and knows the dark arts.”

Vladimir III lifted a spoonful of broth to his lips and gagged as he swallowed.

The two bodyguards stood but Vladimir III waved them away. “Sit down! This nectar’s sweet if only you think of what effect it has. Strength, speed, foresight, knowledge, invincibility to all base metals, eternal life for the soul... Drink up, and wash away the bitter taste with this wine from my cellars.”

Vladimir III lifted his golden goblet and rinsed the foul aftertaste from his mouth with wine.

Nicolae the Faithful quickly spooned the brew into his mouth, gagging and taking frequent sips of wine. Mihu the Strong picked up the golden bowl and drank the repulsive liquid in a single gulp.

“Delicious, as my liege has said,” Mihu belched, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

“I’m going to be ill,” groaned Nicolae, clutching his stomach and turning green. “If I run from the room, don’t follow.”

Someone knocked.

“Enter,” cried Vladimir III.

The doors swung open and two guards escorted in a turbaned man. The herald announced: “The Ambassador of the Sultan of Turkey.”

The Ambassador stepped forward and bowed to Vladimir. “Greetings, Voyevode. I bear a message for you from the Sultan.”

The Ambassador handed Vladimir III a scroll with the Sultan’s seal. Vladimir broke the seal, untied the scroll and read the message. He looked up at Mihu and Nicolae with a grim smile,

“The Sultan demands we surrender or his army will attack at once. His troops are massed ten leagues from here. His allies, the Magyars, approach from the west. My brother Radu rides with them. He is to rule in my place until the Sultan and the Magyar King decide how best to divide our lands between them.”

Mihu drew his sword.

“Sheath your blade, Mihu,” said Vladimir quietly. “We’ll send our reply.”

Vladimir, feeling more wolf than snake, sent the ambassador back to the Sultan with his answer inside a sack — the head of the Ottoman captain.

* * *

When the great dining hall had emptied, two small faces peeked from behind the great curtains.

“Did you hear that?” asked Josip. “Your father’s betrayed us. He’s gone over to the Turks. He rides with the Magyars.”

“It’s a lie!” sobbed Yanosh. “I’ll never believe it. Never!”

“When my father gets his hands on you, you’re going to get whipped.”

“He has to catch me first.”

“Look,” said Josip. “They’ve drunk the witch’s brew.”

“The room still stinks of it,” said Yanosh.

Josip picked up the serving flask from the head of the table and shook it. Some liquid splashed about inside.

“There’s some left,” said Josip. He put the flask to his lips and drained it.

“They’ve left some in the bowls, too,” said Yanosh. He picked up Nicolae’s bowl and drank the dregs of the vile stew.

“Ugh!” he coughed. “It’s poison!”

Yanosh licked the bowl clean. “I don’t feel any different.”

“I just feel sick,” said Josip.

They heard footsteps from the hallway coming their way.

“Let’s get out of here!” whispered Yanosh.

Too late. The door swung open and Vladimir III came back into the great dining room followed by Mihu and Nicolae.

“It’s you,” said Vladimir.

Mihu grabbed Yanosh by the neck in one great paw and shook him “You mangy cur!”

Nicolae had drawn his sword. “Let’s get rid of him now while we have him.”

“Let him go,” said Vladimir.

Mihu released the boy and the three men surrounded him, towering over him. Yanosh hung his head in shame.

“It can’t be true!” the boy cried out.

Vladimir turned to Mihu. “Take this little traitor away. If I set eyes on him again, I’ll carve out his liver.”

“I want to stay here with you!” cried Yanosh.

Vladimir slapped him across the face. “Go to your father and tell him his treachery has been exposed. If either of you set foot in this valley again, I’ll sit you on a stake and flay you alive.”

Mihu took Yanosh and dragged him from the room. He rode to the pass with the trembling boy stumbling behind on a leash. When they reached the pass, the great warrior dismounted, cut the leash from Yanosh’s neck, and pushed him towards the gap.

“You heard what your uncle said. Get going.”

Weeping bitter tears, Yanosh turned down the road towards the gap. Mihu mounted his steed and watched as the boy entered the pass and disappeared. Mihu turned and rode back towards the castle.

A moment later, Yanosh peeked out from the pass and saw the coast was clear. He came back into the valley but left the road and entered the forest. In his young heart, the first corrosive drops of hate had begun to drip.

* * *

As the witch’s potion took effect, a malevolent darkness settled over Vladimir. His cursed soul, already stained with crime, seemed to shrivel up like a dried fruit, as he made ready to meet the approaching invaders.

“We’ll speak to these Turks in the only language they can understand,” Vladimir told Mihu and Nicolae. “We’ll prepare a welcome for them they’ll never forget.”

One by one, the captured prisoners were dragged up from the dungeon to the courtyard. Fifty poles — straight, sturdy tree trunks from young trees in the nearby forest, were neatly stacked in the corner of the courtyard.

For each prisoner, Vladimir III selected a stake, one end carved sharp, the other rounded, so as to penetrate but not kill. One by one, the prisoners’ wrists and ankles were tied with thick ropes harnessed to four horses whose reigns were held by four of Vladimir’s warriors. Each warrior led his horse two steps away to spread-eagle the prisoner. The blunt end of the pole was placed between the prisoner’s legs. The horses began to pull...

Terrible screams echoed in the courtyard. Soon the pile of stakes was gone. No prisoners remained in the dungeon.

Not three days had passed when a guard rushed in to the great hall where Vladimir sat in war council with Mihu the Strong and Nicolae the Faithful.

“Sire,” cried the guard, “the Ottoman army has been sighted.”

The men rose from table.

“Sound the alarm,” said Vladimir III.

* * *

The advance guard of the Sultan’s army came over the crest of a slope and entered the narrow gorge that led to Count Dracul’s estates. The Janissaries moved cautiously, aware that their comrades had disappeared into the valley a week before and not been heard from again. As the Turks emerged from the pass into the valley, they found their missing comrades, some dead, some still alive and begging to be killed. They were impaled on bloody stakes that lined the road, like a forest of human bodies, that lead to Count Dracul’s castle.

The Janissaries, horrified, drew their weapons and advanced into the valley. A flood of arrows rained down on them from the rear. Armed men attacked the Turkish column from the woods on both sides of the road. The Voyevode’s cavalry thundered around the bend at full gallop and bore down on the reeling Turkish troops. A huge black wolf ran at the head of the Voyevode’s horsemen.

* * *

In the little hut in the forest, the old woman was seated on a crude bench at the rough hewn table with the child in her lap. On the table before them was the Druid power stone on its white marble hand. The little girl looked intently at the globe as the crone pointed with a crooked finger,

“You see, there, in the center, Sonyechka?”

The little girl climbed up on the table, grasped the globe in both hands, and pressed her nose to the glass, peering into the depths of the sphere.

“It’s cloudy in there, Grandma. It’s hard to see.”

“Keep watching, my child. Be patient.”

“I saw lightning!”

The old woman smiled.

“The fog is lifting, Grandma! It’s clearing! I see a little island of dark towers and silver spires. Who lives there?”

“Maybe you, my child, when the time comes.”

“Look, Grandma! It’s changing!”

“Yes it is.”

The old woman looked over the little girl’s shoulder. The milky cloud within the sphere thickened and began to swirl.

“I can’t see anything now, Grandma.”

“Watch, Sonyechka.”

The swirling cloud began to part, opening a clear view to the center of the sphere. As the cloud dissolved, faces appeared — a young man and a young woman.

“Grandma, they’re looking out at us!”

“Yes, they are,” laughed the crone.

“Who are they?”

“Do we even know who we are? Or they? Does anyone? It’s just shadows in the mirror, child.”

There was a knock at the door. The crone cried out, “Come in, come in. It’s not locked.”

The door creaked on its hinges and swung open. Trembling, in filthy rags, alone, with nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to, Yanosh stood in the doorway, his head hung in shame, his heart seething with anger.

“Come in, boy. Come in,” croaked the old woman. “We’ve been expecting you. Supper’s almost ready.”

* * *

Proceed to Chapter 4...

Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler

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