Servant dismounted before a guard who extended his spear and stopped him. He saw the urgency in the servant’s eyes and let him in. Dead of night, the servant passed the bogged ground and climbed the stairs. A squeal of hinges announced him before three knights at the table.
Warriors listened to his mumble while he pointed at the cross he wore around the neck. One of them nodded. With visible disapproval portrayed on the face, the knight went to the bedroom.
„Master. Master. “, the guard stared at the piled woolen shroud. „Master! “, the head peeped at the other end of the cover. „Mumbler came back. He brings news from Saint Mary. “, warrior proclaimed and left.
Soldiers dressed their chainmail, buckled the straps and tied up the breastplates. Upon setting the nasal helms, they noticed the Master behind their backs. He tossed his gaze over them and exhaled.
The group proceeded to the paddocks. Servants in white linen shirts rushed in the dark, their image resembled ghosts as they ran in the courtyard. House Knights sped up while Mutter blabbered about the reason for his arrival. He shook his cross and pointed somewhere outside the walls. The Master shuffled through the mud, grunting at him.
They rode out, shifted to a gallop in the forest. On a boulder near an oak, a hunter with a javelin in hand stood by a dying fireplace and a carved boar. Seeing them in armor, the young man in grey bowed until they vanished in an elbow of the road. Warriors fixed on reaching the church saw a golden cross shine over the treetops.
The Lord stepped down among the villagers, made his way through the whimpering men and women. Mumbler accepted Lord’s weapon and waited outside, for the Lord blessed himself, kissed the doorframe and pulled a big step in a noticeably cold church. He has not made another. In the middle of the room, right under the praying post, a torn body laid in a pool of blood. Grotesque splatters covered the saints painted on the walls – the Master recalled a battlefield. The priest’s head left on the altar – it looked at the entrance. Pulsating darkness consumed Lord’s vision dimmed the candlelight, and for a moment he zoned out.
Not able to withstand the scene, the Lord ran out and took a deep breath. In between the takes, he noticed a man sitting on a bench. He came up to him and looked at the stained hands he probably used to touch the body.
“Who murdered the father Clement?” the Lord asked in a deep tone.
“I don’t know, Master,” he said while staring at the ground.
“Do you wish to meet your God maimed or crippled?” the Master tried to catch his eyes.
“If I speak untrue, I may as well become mute.” the man raised his head at the Mumbler.
“You may also follow Clement on his journey beyond.” the Lord lifted his leg on a bench and looked far behind the man’s back.
“God’s will. I can’t defy the destiny.” the man knocked his shoulders down in a powerless manner.
Seeing the resolve in a clerk, the Lord waved at the guards.
“He will take you to his holy arms. You are a man of faith.” he tapped the clerk and counted his steps back to the church.
In motion, he presented a fist to his men; the tallest one nodded and pulled out the ax.
Everyone heard a dull impact of steel over the log followed with a clerk’s scream. Upon coming closer to his subordinates, the crowd fell mute. Gasp or two came from aside. Women clenched their children, men stood in a line, waited for Lord’s decision to flog them or not.
“Dig the grave, send for the priest at Archangel Michel’s church. Someone must perform the ceremony.” a slight wave of a finger sent people running for the shovels.
Knights approached their ruler. The cries of a clerk did not interrupt their attention; they all knew he could have gone worse. Noble nostrils whistled with air while blue eyes remained fixed at the dirt.
“Send for the Bishop to bless the church. One priest is not enough.” worried about what happened, the Lord looked at the warriors. “My window was barred shut, and I haven’t passed you in the kitchen. Is there any other Georgian using the road?” his eyes passed each man where the middle guard cleared his throat.
“Ney, Milord. Border units have not sent a messenger, nor did we receive a request of passage over the river. The barge is at our side.”
“Who then? Could it be that Svetimir snuck up on me to take my land?” forming his lips into a line, he anticipated a reaction and they would have rebelled if it were not for the killer eyes waiting on an answer.
“Sir, I’d hear from Jacob if anyone attacked him. Villagers would’ve come running to alert me.”, the tallest one said and moved his face aside.
“Could it be, that ‘pouch men’ came back to test my faith? I already repented and took on Catholicism. Or did Svetimir joined forces with Byzantium to punish me?” he looked at the sky talking to himself.
“They know they will break their forces here, Milord. And their strength has grown weak in the conquests of the Holy Land.” the smallest uttered.
He has not granted them a reply but signaled Mumbler to come with the horses and rode back to the castle.
They pulled his armor down and he sat at the porch. Nervously he scratched the back of his hand; felt he is slipping out of control. Hospitallers’ balms were not miraculous, as they said it would be. Perhaps he misunderstood the faulty Greek of a soldier they took for a slave. Perhaps they lied to him, just like everyone else to this day.
Mumbler snuck up to him, his specter threw a shade reaching Lord’s feet. From the whole man, he only noticed his cross. The Lord stopped scratching when he spotted blood.
“It’s going to rain. God is crying over Clement,” he proclaimed knowing Mumbler cannot reply when a knight came out carrying white straps and bondages.
“It’s time, Sir,” he said, the Master consented, got up and entered.
He knelt in front of Saint George killing the dragon icon, stripped down and inhaled the cresset smoke that glided around four lit candles near his knees. Knights with the chains, cloth, and sticks in their hands waited behind him. The Lord blessed himself the way father Clement showed him to and they went to his chambers. The wind rocked the branches, the forest rumbled when drops of rain began carving their path over the window.
“Tighter, until it begins. You will not be able to hold me down. Faster!” the Master growled at them seeing how careful the warriors were.
They wrapped him in bondages and tightened the ends with sticks braced in knots. One of the guards nailed a spike into the shackle, stopped to see the claws forming. With a worried facial expression, he alerted the others. Immobilized, knights laid him on a straw bed and locked the chains for the wall. Mumbler was the only one left in the room with the Master. He used an oil lamp to shed light over his Lord and observe the process.
“When the candles go out, light up four more for Vukoi, Milica, Dobroslav and my beloved.” the Master proclaimed. “Tonight, expect no sleep. If I break away, kill me, and then find who murdered my Latin teacher. It must be one of the Georgians. No other would have dared to strike a holy man.” he spoke to calm himself. “You already saw too much. You know what to do.”, unable to move his head, he managed to kiss the cross his slave brought him. “I should’ve died the day I devoured my family. Why did you spare me, and let me rip your tongue out for it?” the last came out with pain.
In the Orthodoxy, he found no cure for what haunted him, so he shifted towards Catholicism. Svetimir had the divine right to pursue his brother for he has betrayed their faith. If it were not a sin, the Master would have brought justice to himself and let others fight for the land.
His bondages swell, eyes like to an animal lightened to a green-grey glow. He stared at the ceiling and grunted in waves of pain slicing through his body. Between the white ribbons, the fur started showing, ruff hair, black, and grey in a different angle. Perhaps he is lucky the storm raged outside, so nobody could hear him snarl. People would think that a lone wolf came near the moat chasing his prey.
The bones tried to burst out from the ribcage, and the pressure threatened to collapse his lungs. He craved for breath and fought through the pain, attempted to pray. With the growing pain, his jaw crumbled to form a longer one. The wild, animal-like noise pushed the human sound out of him. Over the icon of Saint George, shadows of fangs and long jaw danced whenever the lightning flashed. Crucified on the bed, the creature within was restless to gain its freedom.
Mumbler muttered a prayer, flinched at every sound of chain hitting the bed frame. The Lord growled, while his guards peacefully ate at the dinner table.
„If he keeps going like this, they’ll banish him. “ a grim expression on a guard aimed at the door hiding the muffled noise.
„They’ll take his head to the Pope… the other head. “ the tallest one added and took a spoonful.
„Devil’s work. The Master turned against Christ to find his place among his wife and children… Did you know he has not visited their obelisks yet? He has no hearth to go and see them. “ the smallest one grunted.
„You are in luck it took his mind so he doesn’t hear you. “ the middle one smirked while staring at the fireplace. „He needs a bloodsucker to drain his strength. That is how you cure this. “ he got to his feet and poured soup in his vessel. „He has not tried to spill the blood so evil may go away. A bloodsucker is what he needs. “ a scoff came out when he sat at the table.
„He slept well last night. Clement foretold when he should shed his skin. All Georgians are like that. So, who killed the priest?“ an angry slam over the table made them look at each other.
„Could it be a bloodsucker the Ugljesha mentioned?“ the smallest one smirked, his comrade raised a hand to strike him but it was just a gist.
The hunter in grey stood at the kitchen window. Rain poured down his hair and soaked his tunic. Lightning flashed imprinting his specter on the glass and the knights fetched their maces. The smallest one nodded at Ugljesha to get the door. Slowly he brought the torch outside to see who stands there but saw nothing. He made another step to inspect the courtyard lit by a flash but even then, he found nobody.
Master’s dreams were colored red, the memories transformed into nightmares that blurred his conscience. The stranger inside of him went wild, unyielding. The prayers in Latin did not confine him to darkness. The Lord recalled his wife’s scream while fending for Vukoi. He recalled his teeth parting meat from a fragile child’s bone, the punctures in his wife. He recalled the taste of Milica.
Saint George, the church glorified him for his efforts to slay a dragon not realizing he was one. Haunted by the torment to shed his skin, he could not push it out of his head. The cacophony of screams and animals’ cry while disemboweling them, it is a thing he could not bear hearing any longer.
The chains on his right arm tensed, metal squealed at the breaking point. Mumbler’s voice climbed in horror. His bulged eyes captivated tightened straps, the bondages ripping in shreds. Catching a breath was impossible for him; clutch over a cross sliced his palms. The link broke sending the end of it in the air and knocked him down. The guard entered and plunged his spear under Master’s armpit. A cry shifted to a growl, wherein a swift turn, the beast split the handle in half. There, where the warrior wounded him, the bondages tore apart and the fur outspread up to the Master’s neck. His claws cut through the wrapping, while the jaw fully altered to a muzzle. Ugljesha poured holy oil over the creature before the second guard advanced with a dagger. The Master grabbed and threw him at the wall, killing him in the process.
Breaking the constraints, he crashed in them and got to the door. Until knights recollected themselves, the beast already climbed the wall and went over the side.
“Will he come back in the morning?” the smallest one asked Ugljesha who pulled him to the entrance.
“To horses, Zarko! He’s getting away!”
The garrison, all fifty of them rode out and dispersed in the forest. Riders advanced through the storm evading the roots that could cripple their horses. Search party in teams of ten took envelopment formation – this was not their first hunt. In the villages, a rumor spoke of an animal that ravaged the herds. They pleaded the Master to find its lair and kill it. If only they knew the beast’s lair was a castle, they would burn it to the ground.
The storm blew over in the morning. The Lord woke up and realized he slept between the roots of an oak. He rubbed his eyes and spotted his nudity. Confused, he brought his eyes to the luscious green crown above him.
“They forgot about you a long time ago.” he addressed the wooden massive. “They forgot your names and baptized you differently. In Greek and Latin, people say there is only one God. People raise armies to prove that one of those is false. But an oak can be a home to all of them.” he proclaimed being enchanted by a treetop.
Just when he made a step, he spotted a young hunter in a grey tunic. Quiver with javelins hung over the boy’s shoulder while he carried a dead hare, the man seemed undernourished and weak. The Master recognized that face. He saw him yesterday. He jerked back to the oak, aware that boy could have seen him in his other state. What if he rushes in the village and tells the peasants?
“God help you, lad.” he deepened his voice and concluded he must find a good reason to be alone and naked in the forest.
“God is helping, Milord. However, is there help for a man such as you? Which God would offer help to a man, who has not picked a religion to abide by?” arrogant interlocutor jumped from a cascade to a lower level. “Germans kneel before their God. Romans stand tall before theirs. And you, you’ve fallen asleep in their arms, even though you denounced them ages’ ago.” judging Lord’s choices, the lad circled about and looked at Lord’s barren skin.
The Master blushed in discomfort.
“What about you? How do you conduct with your Gods? Aren’t you a Bogomil, a heretic, a ‘pouch man’?” without a weapon, he attacked him with words, but the boy smiled at the attempt to offend.
“You wouldn’t believe if I told you,” he smirked and left the quiver on the ground.
Refraction of the light over the boy’s face showed a different person under the shadow, odd eyes, completely horrid creature sleeping under the fair skin. He advanced at the Lord, grabbed for his back and went after Lord’s nose. Sharpen teeth chewed it off and left a stream of blood splashed over the ground. The Master managed to push him away to inspect his wounds.
“You cur!” the Master shouted at the smiling boy.
“Such strength for a Georgian. Is the other guy you borrow it from?” the assailant added holding itself in a semi crouch position, ready for another go.
“What are you?” even before the Master let go of his wound and wiped out the teary eyes, nails stuck in his neck, pulled him closer to the boy who bit a piece of his cheek.
In waves, the hunter parted pieces from Master’s face, scratched him until it came from behind and anchored itself for the Lord. By the time he was finished, everything left from the Lord was a bloodied carcass with strips of skin instead of the head. The hunter laid him among the roots and wiped the blood off his mouth. Far from them, a sound of metal steps and dogs barking came through.
He picked up his belongings and turned around for the last time.
“When someone doesn’t want a child, he leaves it to the wolves. Sometimes, that child finds a fairy and she raises him as her own. Sometimes, the teeth are not enough to kill, but I had my vengeance.” he added.
The steps led him into the light that pierced the mist. His form blended with the surrounding until the moment his body completely merged with it and the silence returned among the oaken trees, bushes, hedges and foliage that breeze rolled on the ground.
The problem with the short stories is its compact form that limits the style of writing. Most stories begin with an intro to provide information about the world and characters. For me, it is best to open with a mystery and show era and place where the plot happens. From the start, we meet a guide of the story, a man, and a servant who is faithful and doing stuff for his Lord, even his Master is a brut. This is the first glance at feudal Serbia. We learn from the motives and the armor specification that this is around the 12th century, an era also described as a goth period in history. Along with the dialog, we can see the lifestyle and the rule of the land, to see how people once lived. In those times, people were very religious and god-fearing, which made the church a ruling body sitting next to royalty.
Elements of speculative, horror and fantasy kicked in along with the history trivia. Bogomils were the people who followed a branch of Christianity that deviated and became a movement. Derogatory slang for these people was: pouch men, bagmen, and sack men, because they preferred to live like hermits, without any possession, without houses, money, belongings, shoes or slippers, sharing their core belief much alike the Grand Sparrow in the Game of Thrones. This belief that people should cast their possessions away in the name of God, caused friction with the Royalty, which had lots of lands and wealth, and the Church that saw a benefit in wars, pillaging, and donations. This painted Bogomils as heretics, traitors of the faith and they were to be killed on sight. In the same time, these actions were conducted, a contingent of European nobility and troops took the second, land route, via militaris in the conquest of the Holy Land with Jerusalem as its capital. The road they used was the one that former Roman Empire built, now fractured in two entities. Serbia defied Byzantine influence for a long time, but the mass spreading of Christianity took its tool. In a chain of events where Kingdoms were born and destroyed, the Holy Roman Empire (now Germany) took over the high position and influenced other Christian lands. The same happened with the Byzantium that had the same goal of expansion and spreading their faith as a model of keeping the populace in check. These two Empires were at the war for power, disagreeing, debating and fighting over the little Kingdoms that separated them. One of those Kingdoms was Serbia.
Here is where it gets interesting. One more thing about history, which is a side plot that speaks about religion, is the part of the Lord denouncing his faith. This act of treachery is a reoccurring element in the history of Serbia and even today, historians are at a clash to distinguish what was the real cause for a change of faith. Some say that Serbian royalty was traditional of Catholic teachings, influenced by the Franc clergymen and Hungary (another Empire between Byzantium and Holy Roman Empire). Others claim that Orthodox Christianity was the first religion that tamed Slavic southern savages. Dependent on whom you ask, you will get different sources to read.
The greatest betrayal that happened, I took it to be the abandonment of the Slavic Mythology and taking the religion. For one to denounce religion and join another, as I already said, was a deadly crime. Yet, nobody thought the same if one denounced his pagan ways to become more progressive. This is what the story is about. It is a path to redemption and seeking the light in the age of darkness, question your existence, moralize about what is right, seek forgiveness for the sins done, become free in the eyes of God.
You must understand that if Serbian nobility agreed to remain loyal to their many Slavic Gods, that they would suffer countless wars in an attempt to keep their integrity and sovereignty. Eventually, this Kingdom would have fallen and crumble, only to be conquered by some mighty force. To avoid such end, Knez Ratoslav has requested for two scholars from Byzantium and thus introduced Orthodoxy to the region of Moravia. Taking the scholars into the royal court, Ratoslav secured the future of his people and sparked the literature and rise of culture. This event happened in 864. AC., a long time before the mentioned 12th century. This is a big plot hole here, the time inconsistency. These two events could never happen at the same time, and I said I wanted some historically factual piece. Well, it still works, if we look at the turmoil and war climate that burned through the Balkan. 100 wars, numerous cases of vassalage, revolutions, and uprisings left a possibility that the events of brutally swapping religion could be still happening, even the centuries passed since there was the first change of heart.
I said enough about the differences these two Empires had, but what about the common ground? Serbia was a place for merchants to pause travel and an important checkpoint for any army on their way to lay a siege. Serbia’s location and the natural layout provided good shelter, and many lands to restock the supplies. Because everybody knew this, Serbs grew defensive of the land, not hesitant to draw blades and charge at an approaching force. This only fueled the wars and clashes with a superior foe. Bring in the religion and debate whose God is truer, and you get a perfect storm, a shitstorm. Brother killing brother, Kingdoms rise and fall, it all boiled while the massive armies pass the borders and pillage everything in their path.
One thing the Holy Roman Empire did is traveling through the familiar lands, Catholic lands and resupply, recruit men, use the Lord’s hospitality and move along to the Holy Land. If there was no favorable rout, do you think Holy Roman Empire would miss the chance to bribe someone into becoming a Catholic, only to price him twice over by taking his entire harvest and healthy men for soldiers? It was brutal back then. We know politicians are bad, and the government is not fair, but back then, the church was the government, the church was into politics, the church was bad.
That is all for history I wanted to implement.
Now, for the fantasy element, goth, and horror, you can see it in the scenes and details. All of that is just so I can bring more color to the story, thus creating an alternative history you might like. For the hunter in grey, I am anxiously waiting to hear your theory of who he is.
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