by Bill Bowler
part 2 of 3
An old crone and a little girl walked along a path in the forest. The sky was overcast but the thunder storms had stopped and the rain had let up for the first time in days. The path was muddy and the trees and bushes were damp.
Drops of water hung like tiny jewels from the leaves and fell as the old woman and the girl brushed by. They were looking for mushrooms and herbs. The little girl carried a basket and the crone would stop from time to time, pointing out a speckled mushroom cap, or a yellow blossom, or a red berry. The little girl would step from the path into the brush to pull the stem of the flower or pick berries from a bush, and place the treasures in the basket.
The sky began to clear. The dark, thick clouds began to lighten and thin. Patches of blue appeared. Soon the sun shone through, the storm clouds dispersed, and wisps of white streaked the pale blue firmament.
At some distance through the thick brush and leaves, the old woman and the young girl could hear the rushing waters of a swollen river. They followed the muddy path and came eventually out from the forest to a flat, wet sunken area, a bog.
“We’ll find beggar-tick here,” said the crone, “and lizard’s tail, and swamp rose. Fine herbs all to make a strong brew. You remember what I told you?”
“Yes,” said the little girl, and she began to chant in a quiet, sing-song voice,
From one, the sap,
From one, the leaf,
From one, the cap,
From one, the seed,
None shall lack
Here’s all we need...
A forest of cat-o-nine-tails waved in the wind before them. In their midst, the little girl saw a towering bush covered with bright red flowers. She left the path and started towards the blossom-covered bush. As she stepped through the tall reeds, her feet began to sink into the soft, wet mud and soon she was ankle deep in the muck.
The old crone called from the path, “Careful, Sonyechka. Don’t let the swamp demon grab your feet, hee hee.”
By the time the little girl had made her way through the muck to the bush, she was knee deep in the bog and felt herself sinking slowly. She reached up, plucked a red flower, and placed it in her basket.
“Take them all, Sonyechka, all of them,” the old woman called out, “but quickly, child, quickly.”
The little girl filled the basket with red flowers. She was stretching to reach a large blossom near the top of the bush, when a wisp of cloud passed from in front of the sun and a beam of light struck a bright object near where she stood. Sonya saw the reflection in the corner of her eye. Something glittered.
She dragged her feet through the wet muck to the sparkling object and began to wipe away the mud. A round, hard, smooth surface began to be revealed. She dug away more mud and then stepped back and screamed. Next to the object she had uncovered a human arm.
“What is it, Sonya? What did you find?”
The old crone hobbled through the muck to where Sonya stood. She saw a mud covered sphere resting on the palm of a hand. Past the wrist, the arm disappeared under the wet peat.
“Don’t worry, dear. Help me. It’s a gift from the earth,” said the old woman as she knelt and scraped more mud away from the arm. Soon the rest of the body had been exposed. Sealed airtight in the mud, the flesh and clothing had been preserved. The body, dressed in the shredded remains of a long robe, lay spread-eagled on its back with the sphere on its right palm. The flesh was mummified by its long interment in the bog, the grin of death stretched between hollow cheeks on its brown face.
“What is it, Grandma?” said Sonya, gazing in horror at the body and in wonder at the large sphere resting on its hand.
“It’s a power stone, my dear, and a very old one from the looks of it. This man was a priest... or thief.”
“And I found it!” said Sonyechka.
“You did not find it,” said the crone. “It found you. It waited here for you. Generations passed, ages passed, and still it waited patiently, buried here, safe, for as long as it took for you to come. And then it called to you as we drew near.”
The little girl was overwhelmed. “Now what do we do?”
“We follow the path we have taken. Take the power stone. It belongs to you, or you to it. We’ll leave the bearer here. He’s just a messenger. His task is done. Here, help me cover him back up. Earth and water have swallowed one of their own. Let him rest now.”
They re-buried the body, covered it with mud. The crone took Sonya’s basket and the little girl, with all her strength, lifted the sphere and carried it back to their hut, deep in the forest. With water from the well, they washed the stone clean. It was a perfect sphere, heavy, transparent.
The old woman placed it on the rough hewn table and the ball rolled towards the edge, towards Sonya. The crone grabbed it with a chuckle. “Heh heh, it can’t sit still. It seeks you always. We need a stand to hold it so it doesn’t fall and break.”
The old woman hobbled to her cupboard and searched among the jars and flasks that filled the shelf. She pulled a small jar from the back of the shelf, uncorked it, and put her nose to the jar’s mouth. With a sly grin, she re-corked the bottle and put it in her pocket.
“Stay here, dear, until I return. I won’t be long.”
The crone hobbled out of the hut, took the path in the opposite direction through the forest and came out to the road that led north to the village, beyond the mountain where the castle stood. When she reached the village, she went to a small, ramshackle shop that stood alone at the end of a side path. She entered without knocking.
The interior of the shop was dark and crowded with objects piled on counters and along the walls and stacked in the corners - figurines, jars and bottles, tools and implements, portraits, children’s toys, all covered with dust. A white-haired, bearded man looked up as she entered.
“Greetings,” said the crone. “I’ve come to see your wares.”
“So you have. But what have you to barter?”
The crone took the small jar from a pocket in the thick folds of her skirt. “Love potion.”
A lecherous grin passed fleetingly across the old man’s face.
“Does it work?”
“Three drops last one hour. None can resist.”
“What do you want for it?”
“I need a stand to hold a crystal globe. Like so,” the crone showed him the size with her hands.
The shopkeeper nodded and began searching through the pile of objects behind the counter.
“This casket of iron would do nicely,” he said.
“Not iron. No prison bars for this ancient sphere. It longs for freedom.”
The shopkeeper went back to the pile of objects and kept looking,
“Here’s a wooden stand that would serve you well.”
“No, not wood. This globe is precious and requires a precious stand.”
The shopkeeper nodded. “I have it. Here.”
He shuffled over to a bureau and pulled from a drawer a human hand, carved in white marble. “A Druid priest tried his luck playing dice at the inn. Don’t ask how it came into my possession.”
The old woman took the marble hand and examined it. It was a carving of exquisite workmanship, life-sized, fingers cupped. Stripes of pink, like veins, ran through the polished surface. Silently, she handed the jar of love potion to the shopkeeper, put the marble hand in the deep pocket in the folds of her skirt, and left the shop.
“Come again.” She heard the words as the door closed behind her.
When the crone returned home to her hut in the forest, she found Sonya gazing into the sphere.
“Look, child,” said the old woman. She took out the hand, placed it on the table, and placed the sphere onto the palm. “Like the world in our hands, the sphere will rest in this palm, as if frozen in time, always as you found it.”
“It’s beautiful, Grandma!”
The old woman smiled gently.
“The sphere,” asked Sonya, “is it glass?”
“No, dear. It’s older than glass. It’s a jewel, like you, an Emerald, but clear. But what were you seeing when I came in?”
Sonya peered back into the sphere. Inside the globe, a dark cloud swirled. The cloud grew milky in color. As Sonya watched, the cloud dissolved and in the depths of the sphere, she saw tiny figures,
“Look, Grandma! Inside the ball! Little turbaned men on horses. Lots of them. A whole army...”
* * *
Vladimir III tied his horse to a tree in front of the small cottage in a clearing in the woods and motioned for Mihu and Nicolae to remain where they were. The rotting wooden door creaked on its hinges as Vladimir pushed it open, stooped, and entered the hut.
It was oppressively hot inside. A strong odor filled his nostrils. The interior was dark, the only window covered with soot with little sunlight entering. A white-haired, wrinkled hag was hunched over a large cauldron that hung in the hearth above a crackling fire. A child in rags, a little girl, with long, filthy matted hair and bright eyes, clung to the folds of the old hag’s long skirt. The foul odor wafted from the vile liquid that boiled in the cauldron. On a rough hewn table, a large sphere rested on the palm of a sculpted hand.
Without turning, the crone spoke. “Welcome, Voyevode, since you have already entered unbidden.”
“Watch your tongue, witch.”
“You’re not safe out here alone. The Turks have reached our valley.”
The witch laughed. “I’m sure you will make them comfortable, Count.”
“More are coming.”
“Yes, my liege, many more. These are just the first drops of the gathering storm. Others follow in their footsteps, and close behind. I see them coming.”
“I believe you, witch.”
The old hag cackled again. “There’s little consolation in that, Count Dracul.”
“The Sultan has massed his troops. His army is on the march. Hungary has allied with the invaders. My men are heavily outnumbered. We need something to tip the balance in our favor. You brew potions?”
“I do,” croaked the old witch. “I have many herbs and essences at hand,” — she sprinkled powder into the cauldron — “but for the spell I have in mind, a fine spell, to make invincible warriors, I must brew a less common potion. Additional ingredients must be obtained to seal the enchantment.”
The crone began to chant in a hoarse voice,
Tear from the owl its feathered wing,
Grind to dust the swift deer’s hoof,
Rip from its flesh the fur of wolf,
Add heart of dog, and serpent’s sting...
“Do you know the rest, my dear?” the witch asked the girl, hiding her face in the folds of the old woman’s skirt. The girl’s dirt-streaked, little round face appeared from the folds and she spoke out in a childish sing-song squeak,
Boil wing and stir,
Add hoof and fur,
Pour in venom, simmer heart,
Consume the whole, become the parts...
“Well done, my dear!” laughed the witch. “You’ve mastered your lessons.”
Vladimir III muttered under his breath, “Owl wing, deer hoof, wolf pelt, snake venom, dog heart.”
“Bring those ingredients to me, Count, and we’ll brew a fine potion. If three warriors drink of it, they’ll have the power to slay an army.”
Vladimir III turned to go.
“And, Count, it’s best if you yourself obtain the ingredients. That would increase the effect on you.”
Vladmimir left the hut without another word. The old hag bent over the cauldron and stirred the brew,
“Hand me the wolf bane, Sonyechka.”
* * *
A mouse raced around in circles in a small cage. It smelled the snake, and the scent was growing stronger. The mouse threw itself against the wall of the cage and began frantically to gnaw the bars.
The head of a horned viper, its forked tongue flicking in and out between its fangs, slid out of a small hole in a grassy mound and slithered towards the cage. A heavy boot came down on the viper’s body and the blade of a hunting knife flashed like lightning and severed the viper’s head.
Vladimir leaned down, took the snake head, and put it into his hunting sack.
* * *
The full moon sat high in the sky. The dark forest was coated in a silver sheen. A squirrel, with a leather collar tied to a sapling, scampered about in panic, trying to pull free. As it grasped the leather cord in both paws and began to gnaw on the line, a silent shadow swooped down from the branches.
Vladimir III cast his net over the snowy owl as, startled from the live bait, it screeched and took flight between two pine trees. He untangled the owl from the net and pinned its wings between his gloved hands as the bird struggled and clawed in his grip. He twisted its head to break the neck before ripping the wings from the torso. He placed the white owl wings in his sack together with the head of the horned viper he had trapped earlier in the day.
The next day at dusk, with his hunting bow, Vladimir III downed a frightened deer dashing across a meadow at the edge of the forest. The sun was setting and the evening shadows were lengthening. Vladimir III used his broad bladed hunting knife to sever the right fore hoof of the dying animal. He felt as if someone were watching. He looked up towards the edge of the forest and saw two beady eyes staring out at him and at the carcass of the deer. Vladimir III dropped the hoof into his hunting sack with the owl wings and viper head. He stepped away into the brush downwind from the deer carcass, to wait.
Hidden among the tall grasses, Vladimir III saw the wolf pack emerge from the forest to the edge of the meadow and slink towards the deer carcass. He took aim with his hunting bow and drove a shaft into the heart of the first wolf to sink its jaws into the dead deer’s flesh. The wolf dropped in its tracks, its aorta severed by the arrow.
The rest of the pack fled back into the forest as Vladimir III emerged from the long grass and came up to where the wolf lay. He took out his knife, flayed a section of hide from the wolf’s fur covered flank, and dropped the bloody pelt into his hunting sack.
Snake. Owl. Deer. Wolf. Vladimir swung up into the saddle and rode back towards the castle. One ingredient remaining.
The hounds howled from the kennel as their master rode in through the castle gate into the courtyard. The scent of deer and wolf was in the air. Vladimir III dismounted, handed the reigns to the stable boy, and walked to the kennel where the hunting hounds were caged.
The dogs barked and leaped wildly against the fence as Vladimir approached. He opened the latch and let one hound out through the gate. The dog leapt up upon its master, licking his face. Vladimir scratched the dog behind its ear, then quickly slit its throat with a single motion. The dog dropped to the ground as the hounds in the kennel continued furiously to bark and howl.
Vladimir sliced open the dog’s chest and pulled the still-beating heart out with his hands.
Yanosh and Josip were standing in the doorway that led to the courtyard, their eyes wide open. Vladimir put the heart in his sack and wiped the blood from his hands and blade,
“You two, come here. Take this carcass out and bury it near the wall.”
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler