by Roger B. White, Jr., copyright 2010
The railroad did indeed bring winds of change blowing through the Kalzov Valley. As in my student days, change was welcomed by many and protested by some.
This story is of one protest that chilled my heart. I find it easier to tell in the third person.
Baron Iglacias Rostov’s library was a richly furnished room, two floors high. Three walls were lined from top to bottom with bookshelves. In the center of the eastern wall was a large fireplace with a tidy fire in it against the cold February day. In the western wall were several floor-to-ceiling windows, curtains now pulled wide to let in the mid-afternoon sun and some extra warmth.
The Baron sat comfortably in a leather wing chair. He had just pulled an old book from a second-story shelf and dusted it off. Now it lay open across his legs as he read it with the intense concentration that characterized nearly all his activities.
He looked up occasionally to store a thought away. Once as he did so he noticed an errant blue tendril of smoke from the fire pass into a bright white ray of sunlight. The curls and swirls formed, wavered briefly, then broke into smaller and smaller forms until the whole tendril became a featureless gray.
“There is order in that,” he muttered quietly. “One day I should find a way to describe it.”
Behind him a door opened quietly and a maid brought in a tray with tea and sandwiches.
The Baron studied her from deep-set eyes as if seeking to describe the chaos and order in her motion, in some ways similar to the tendril of gray smoke. Emilija was tall, slim, perhaps twenty years old. Her dark hair, shorter than the current fashion, waved around her shapely head. She carried herself with the quiet competence of a well-trained maid. She neither stumbled and fumbled like a novice nor did she rattle and prattle as did some over-familiar “old family retainers”.
She carried the tray to the small tea table beside the wizard’s chair, arranged it without a word or a glance at him, and had started for the door when he finally stood and spoke. “A moment more of your time, Emilija.”
She started slightly but turned the Baron a calm face.
“Come and sit with me a moment. First pour the tea, if you will.”
Without a word she came back to the tea table, dropped one cube of sugar into the china cup, neatly filled it, and handed the cup to her employer. He noticed that the tea set’s floral pattern was new, and was pleased that the valley’s fine ceramics artisans were expanding their repertoire as he had encouraged them to do.
The Baron pointed to a chair and floated it to settle on the opposite side of the table. Emilija’s eyes widened at the sight.
“Many things in the room are not what they seem, Emilija. Please join me,” said the Baron.
Even with this unusual display, Emilija protested, in just the right tone of suppressed impatience, “If it please the Baron, there’s much to be cleaned up.”
“But there is much afternoon left to do it in. I promise neither I nor Mrs. Gradic will complain if you pour yourself a cup and drink it with me.”
With care, Emilija poured another cup while the Baron studied her. Her tea prepared, she sat down, and for a moment gave the Baron the full benefit of her gaze from below dark eyebrows in a face of particularly fine bone structure. In most lights it was hard to tell the line between the iris and pupil in Emilija’s dark brown eyes, but in this slanting light the Baron could see they were now almost all black iris.
Then she dropped her eyes and raised the cup to her lips. The Baron did the same, but suddenly stopped, frowned, and stood, making a gesture almost too quick to see. As Emilija’s lips touched the tea, she found it was frozen solid. Throwing the cup from her, she tried to rise. But the Baron had motioned at the chair again and its narrow arms enfolded the maid firmly. She twisted, trying to escape, as the back of the chair stretched around her shoulders and the legs of the chair wrapped around hers. Immobilized, she ceased struggling and again stared full face at the Baron.
The Baron sat down in his wing chair. He was breathing heavily from fear as well as his rapid exertions, but he returned her gaze with fire in his eyes and an ear-to-ear grin. For some two minutes neither spoke, even after the Baron got his breath back. Emilija occasionally tried to shift her position, finding that the chair would let her make small changes but always tightened its grip again.
Finally the Baron said, “You shouldn’t care so much for a person you plan to murder. Your eyes showed such triumph but your lips revealed such sadness. Or was the sadness for yourself?”
Emilija looked at him with surprise but said nothing. He answered her unspoken question. “When you first entered the room, your walk was stiffer and even quieter than usual, but I supposed it was some problem with Mrs. Gradic or one of the other servants. I wanted to find out if I could help.
“But then I saw your eyes in the sunlight … What poison is it?”
Emilija said nothing but struggled a moment against the chair. The Baron picked up one of the teacups, sniffed gingerly at the melting brown ice, and shook his head. Then he gathered up both cups with the teapot and tossed them all into the fireplace. For a while the dripping ice sizzled on the hot coals until, for just a moment, the flames roared to inferno strength and turned a ghastly blue as a scream issued forth. Emilija gasped at the sight.
“Very deadly,” commented the Baron.
“That wasn’t you?” Her voice was a clear contralto, and she spoke like what she was, a burgher’s daughter.
“No, that was what you brought me.”
“May God forgive me! I was told it would incapacitate you, not kill you.”
“Who told you?”
Emilija stared silently at the fire.
“Who told you?”
Emilija remained motionless.
“Don’t toy with me, dear. I like you very much or you would be dead now. You realize that, don’t you?”
Emilija turned back to him, with the sun on her face. “Your Excellency, you have enslaved my people; let my people go!”
“Was it a Shaman?”
“Let my people go! They have suffered long enough under your heavy hand.”
The Baron stood and pounded the back of his chair gently, then scratched his head in frustration.
“Emilija, is there a new Shaman for people to follow?”
“Let my people go! Let me go!” Emilija struggled harder against the chair and it clamped back more strongly. “Ouch!” she cried.
The Baron laughed at the contrast with her earlier noble words, but at her shout the chair relaxed its grip. And as the wizard watched, she repeatedly shouted “Ouch!” and the chair kept loosening until she was standing in front of it, glaring at the chair.
“Try that again, if you dare!” she yelled and kicked it.
The chair reacted like a ferocious little bull terrier, barking and bouncing. When it tried to step on her toes with its front legs, Emilija backed away hastily—straight into the Baron, who pulled her arms behind her until her elbows met.
“Oh, no,” she said.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” A thick white rope appeared and wrapped around her elbows and wrists behind her back. “Ouch!” proved not to be a magic word against it.
With a final yap, the chair lost its animation and stood with all its limbs in place.
“This way, please, Emilija.” The Baron led her, bound, to a shadowy corner of the library where a massive crystal ball stood, a third of a meter across, on a stand depicting the coiled bodies of three brass dragons. “Gaze into the ball, Emilija. Show me your conspirators.”
She resisted, but the Baron’s right hand forced her head down to gaze into the ball.
In moments, a scene of winter snow glowing in afternoon sun appeared. Three men waited by a low stone wall, the smallest staring intently into the distance while the other two walked around, swinging their arms to keep warm.
“Outside Falcon’s Aerie, waiting for a signal, are they? Let’s see …” With a wave of the wizard’s hand the library’s heavy window curtains, one by one, drew themselves shut against the afternoon sun. Emilija looked over her shoulder, then back to the ball to see the men assembling. As the final curtain closed, they jumped the wall and started across the snow-covered lawn, the smallest pulling a dagger from under his coat, the larger man a sword, and the big man a club.
“Oh, no!” groaned the Baron. “You’ve recruited poor, slow Andro for this! It’ll be hard to replace an excellent gardener like him.”
The maid straightened and looked at the wizard. “You aren’t going to kill them, are you?”
He cupped her chin. “I wasn’t planning on it. As I said, Andro would be hard to replace. But if you are willing to intercede on their behalf, I most surely won’t. Are you?”
Affronted again, she took a step back.
“I could have lied and told you their lives were at stake,” the Baron remarked, staring at her.
“If by intercede you mean beg you as an honorable gentleman to spare their lives, of course I will. I do!” Emilija said quietly. “But if you mean, will I submit to you in exchange for my friends, then, no, I won’t.”
After a moment Rostov grinned. “Good,” he said. “It would have been a cheap way to win you. Now watch!”
“Beast! You’ll never win me!” Emilija wrung her hands helplessly and stamped her foot.
“Watch outside, I say,” said the wizard. Still standing beside the ball, he waved the curtains back open.
Emilija moved away to the nearest window, through which the men, now half-way across the lawn, could be seen stopping, staring suspiciously at the curtains, and looking around. The Baron made a few more complex motions directed at the crystal ball.
The snow in front of the men trembled, churned, and drew together into three lumps that shaped themselves into snowmen. The snowmen grew arms, and at the end of each arm grew a round, beautifully-formed snowball. As each snowball reached full size, the snowman threw it at one of the conspirators and then grew another. The tosses were accurate and soon were showering the men with snowballs that they tried to block. But when after a few moments it was clear the barrage wasn’t going to stop, they ran away.
The snowmen chased them, the Baron laughed, and Emilija turned to look at him.
“That’s all? You’re defeating them with snowmen throwing snowballs? They aren’t even hurt!”
“Except in their prides,” he sighed. “Yes, that’s all the snowmen will do. And your friends, like you, will be undaunted. They will return.”
The Baron looked again into Emilija’s eyes. “How do I stop them? How do I stop you?”
“I am telling you. You can stop us by letting us go about our lives without your interference. We want you to let us live as we did in the old days.”
“What do you mean? How am I holding the people? I’m up here on a hill beside a cliff. They’re down in the village, on farms in the valley, hunting through the forests, herding animals. If they want to leave, they can. I myself have sent some to Zagreb, even to Italy, to learn how to do those things better, and to do new things. Not all of them come back.”
“We don’t want to leave. We want the land. You hold the land, and rape it.”
“I rape the land? I own no land in Falcon’s Rest. I do hold the ancestral Rostov lands outside the village. Young farmers rent my holdings while they clear their own land from the surrounding forest, then they leave my fields and other ambitious young men from growing families take their place. I despoil no land, I barely even exploit it. Rape? This is Shaman-talk! Who have you heard it from?”
The maid looked away.
The Baron snorted. “This is serious. If your Shaman’s nonsense goes unchecked, next autumn the young farmers will be burning their fields saying that it hurts me and I deserve it. But when winter returns, they’ll starve.
“Look at me, Emilija! These are your own people we’re talking about.
“We have plans to build a steam-powered loom here and make the valley a prosperous center of industry. More jobs, more food. But it won’t happen if there’s rumor of a Shaman loose. For you, for your people, you must help me stop the Shaman.”
“Baron, the coal-smoke from that loom will sicken the trees and blacken the whole valley. And what about the women who weave at home now while they care for their children? How will they compete with your loom?
“You must find it in your heart to stop these changes. You must free my people.”
“How do you propose I ‘let your people go’, then?” The Baron waited frowning, hands on hips.
Emilija said nothing but walked away from him, threading her way through the chairs, couches, and tables laden with bric-a-brac that cluttered the library. Her eyes darted about the furnishings, but there was never a misstep in her wandering and Rostov thrilled to watch her; tying her arms behind her seemed to him to increase her grace.
When she reached a wall she turned and looked at him with resolve. “Why don’t you find this Shaman yourself? Why not use your crystal ball?”
“We all have our strong points, our sanctuaries and citadels. My strength is here. Chasing a Shaman through the deep forest, even by means of a crystal ball, would be difficult for me. Conversely, you’ll never see the Shaman here, away from the rocks, rivers, and trees he knows, the fetishes he has bound. We must contest through the hearts and minds of the people we both touch.”
“Have you looked?” she asked, walking toward the ball again. “Have you tried?”
The Baron stared at her quizzically. It was an odd request, but she was earnest in making it. He shrugged. Honoring it would take little effort.
“Come here. I’ll try to scry now.” The wizard gestured forcefully and repeatedly at the ball, muttering a spell. “I am neither weak nor inexperienced, but as you see, for all I can do it shows only this room,” he said, bending over the scene. “When the Shaman is protected from—” A look of amazement crossed his face, then he stood and backed away in fear from Emilija.
She raised up her arms and the ropes slid away. She giggled. “Foolish wizard! Hold me with magic ropes? Yes, I am the Druid Shaman you seek. But I am not some Human. As you said, not all in this room is what it appears to be.
“But we are in your lair, where you are strongest. Aren’t you pleased?”
Speechless and motionless the Baron watched the dark-haired burgher’s daughter change into a silver-haired Nymph, her almond eyes cold gray as winter’s dusk and filled with a long hatred of all things human and civilized. Her beauty was now the cold, icy loveliness of a February snowflake.
“But how lucky for me that you have tools for my power lying around your library. My spies told me you kept some here, but I could hardly believe you could be so careless. I had to come see for myself if opportunity was knocking.”
With a motion of her left hand, a small branch of mistletoe from a dried Christmas garland came flying to it; with a motion of her right, a trophy oak club that had hung on a wall. She held them up and a glow of power shone around her.
“Now that you’ve found me, Human, breathe your last, so that my people can be free of what you call civilization.” As she spat those last words out, she began to crumple the mistletoe’s leaves and berries and to rap the floor with the oaken cudgel.
With the first rap, the Baron clutched his chest in pain. But then he began to counter-conjure. The Druid giggled at his effort, and squeezed the mistletoe more tightly.
“I can sympathize with your cloddish farmers, your boorish huntsmen, your loutish herdsmen. But my people, the people I want to free, are the old people of the woods: The Elves, the Nymphs, the little people. Now die, Baron!” she cried joyfully.
But Rostov kept conjuring, though his motions were jerky, as if controlled by puppet strings. The Shaman’s expression melted into concern, then she screamed. The Baron’s motion smoothed. His hands worked as though unnaturally fast he was unbuttoning a garment. The Druid screamed again while her chest bulged, then split open as her heart flew to the wizard’s hand. There its beating slowed to a stop and fuming frost grew into a layer centimeters thick over it. The Baron raised it high and threw it down, where it shattered into red dust.
The Druid gazed at him with a question in her dulling eyes.
“Yes, foolish Nymph, all is not what it seems here. Did you not notice in your eagerness? That mistletoe is silk and the club is plaster. Beautifully detailed imitations, or you could not have used them at all. But I have overcome you. Begone!”
The Druid and the still-fuming dust of her shattered heart returned to the Ethereal Plane, leaving no trace on the Prime Material. Without a second glance, Rostov turned and walked away.
But this was merely a brave show. The next moment he shuddered, stumbled, and grabbed a chair for support. His heart raced and his hands shook. Though she was gone, the feel of her cold grip on his heart would long be a nightmare.
Then the real Emilija entered quietly, tea-tray in hand. With an effort of will the Baron slowed his breathing. He held the chair tightly to still his shaking hands. As she quietly carried the tray to the small tea table beside the wizard’s wing chair and arranged it without a word or a glance at him, he studied her intently, analyzing her movements.
“Someday, I’ll be able to describe that motion,” he thought. “And someday, perhaps she will accompany me … but not today.”
As the maid closed the door behind her, with his hands still quivering slightly but his breathing slowing to normal, the Baron walked to his armchair and resumed his reading.