by Oliviu Crâznic
translation from Romanian by Nigel Walker and Alina-Olimpia Miron
„Unknown are the ways of the Blade. Yet it always shines Red.”
Conrad Lorenz, Sanguinarium
“I have written to the Bishop. I am waiting on his answer.”
The two men took no heed of my words. The dry, early winter wind was making the scattered leaves on the grave rustle, as if whispering to me their stories. But I did not want to hear such stories anymore.
“Are you related to her?” I asked.
“She has no relatives”, the man next to me answered. “I painted her portrait.”
I looked at him. Black, dishevelled hair flowing wildly around his delicate, pale face, and his green eyes shone as faded emerald under the dark eyebrows. The simple, but yet still rather clean suit – even if the man had just come off the road – had the same bitter colour of mourning, except for the white hem which set a morbid contrast through my tears. The young man’s height was a bit over average and he was thinner than most men his age, but his movements seemed as nimble and skilled as a highlander’s, which showed he was all muscle. He did not have a sword, just an incredibly artfully crafted hunting knife strapped to his belt, more of a masterpiece than a weapon; still, I am positive it did cut.
“She was like a sister to us”, said the one who had knelt.
I gazed sorely upon him, but he would not turn to face me. I could see him well, even from a side view– quite the same age as the other one, but taller and fitter; broader shoulders, more sunburnt face. Rich, dusty, slightly wavy, dark-blonde or auburn hair worn in a ponytail, at the back, tied with a blue velvet scarf. He had hazel or green eyes, I could not tell for sure because of the dim daylight. His brown travelling suit matched the pitch-black cloak and, strapped to his belt, he had a long, heavy steel sword, probably a Milan or Toledo one. It was a fighting weapon. On his other hip, shining sharply – the dagger.
Behind us, way beyond the hills, Charron Palace arose, accursed and sombre, amongst the croaking flocks of crows.
“I am terribly sorry”, I said stupidly. “Perhaps if you might have arrived earlier…”
“We could not arrive earlier”, said the man on his knees curtly. “Had we been able to, we would have.”
“What about Captain Farrell?…”
“Do not worry about Captain Farrell.”
I did not voice my lost thoughts. In truth, I was not worried. The portrait painter had placed his hand on the other man’s dusty shoulder.
“Let us go, Arthur”, he said in an even voice. His face looked gloomy, but he seemed at peace now.
The man who had been named Arthur slowly rose to his feet. Thus I could truly see his eyes and they were undoubtedly green, but a dark green resembling the moss on the graves. And there was nothing beyond them.
He looked straight at me.
“You will speak to us now, Father”, he said to me.
And I did.
Less than an year after the untimely death of Seigneur de Charron, the dreaded Palace went to one of the victors, an English Captain named Farrell. This had been agreed upon in the Treaty and, as Seigneur de Charron had never been loved, one could say the inhabitants of Louvy – who, as had been proven throughout history, did not have a penchant for patriotism – accepted quite quickly the new Master of the Land. Some were actually glad, as strange, unholy rumours had run at one point regarding the late Seigneur. Children had vanished, they said; there were gossips about the visit of a dark and pale man, his eyebrows joined at the bridge of the nose and his hand covered in thick, black hair, a man who was writing damned books about a despicable ritual or other evil and grievous things. And a few villagers were fervently claiming that, in past nights of full moon, inhuman and wailing sounds would rise from the Palace, marking the poisoning of Seigneur de Charron with melancholia canina.
As for I – I cannot confirm this in any way. Even if, indeed, the Seigneur had ceased coming to Church altogether for many a year, in those days, my relationship with him was quite regular. Children vanished all the time because parents were uneducated and careless and because huge, hungry, shaggy wolves would sometimes come down in the Vale looking for prey, especially during our cruel winter. Nothing had ever made me thought something Evil would be lurking in the Palace; I myself being a nobleman’s son knew not only how superstitious and gossipy peasants could be, but also how inclined in attributing extraordinary things to those luckier or more capable than them, especially if the latter were rich.
But it is not Seigneur de Charron that I wish to talk to you about, though a mention will have to be made at the right moment. So, let us go back to Captain Farrell. The Englishman was well-received by the villagers, as, except for his rather evil tongue and the disdainful manner in which he addressed those around him, there was not much with which they could reproach him. For awhile he lived in sin with a young lady of good stock, come all the way from Paris, but he was not the only one to have assumed such behaviour and the people here did not prove to be the most apt or willing to pass judgment on him. In fact, the region did seem to prosper under his management and that of Argillac, a Frenchman who served him; the bizarre, dark, grotesque shadow that had hovered for so long over the fields seemed to have slowly, but surely started to lift. People were smiling more and feared less. And though the shaggy wolves kept on coming down from the Mountains and the parents were equally careless and uneducated as always, the children ceased vanishing.
Then eventide fell on my soul and it is my fear it shall be forever.
To my knowledge, Captain Jonathan Farrell had gone on an expedition to the South; only later would I find out that he had actually returned but, at that time, I was utterly stupefied when, shakily lighting the candle and advancing in the dark room in order to answer to the unexpected guest that kept on knocking violently and impatiently in the heavy birch door, I opened and thus found myself in front of the English Captain and Argillac. I instantly recognized their features, though they were craftily clad in long, dirty and ashen cloaks and their large-brimmed hats were covering their glassy eyes. A death-like chill went through my spine right then and there as if I had at once felt the infamous goal of that inappropriate visit; suddenly, in the troubled depths of my very being, rose the irrational and imperious need to slam the door in their faces in order to prevent their entry. But it would have been a completely unacceptable attitude for a priest, even a young, inexperienced one like I was; as, even if the Bishop and the Lord had forgiven me my inadvertent behaviour, it was clear Captain Farrell would not have done quite the same.
Frightened and confused, I took a step back, trying to bless them and invite them inside, though I felt my hand cold and moist as if the blessing would not have been desirable at that precise moment. However, his voice hoarse and hurried, the Englishman cut me off and ordered me to follow him, as he was in need of my knowledge.
Without understanding at the time what he meant, I went outside into the cold autumn wind, making the sign of the cross, and followed them both. They had not brought horses, so we all headed for the path at whose end the dismal Palace of Seigneur de Charron rose; as we were leaving the Church behind, I thought I saw red streaks on the sky, as if the night had cried blood. But, rubbing my eyes, I understood it had been just a darkened figment of my imagination – or maybe they had actually been warnings and signs, only God knows for sure.
As soon as we arrived at the heavy Palace gate, it opened with an unpleasant rumble, the two guards allowing us to go in – their eyes were full of indifference. I found myself in the large, horribly-paved Yard, where the ivy morbidly wreathed around and over the marble gargoyles and shadows of mad lycanthropes were dancing wildly under the ancient, hostile, whitish walls. And everything looked so pagan under God’s sky that such blasphemy horrified me to the bone, thinking instantly that maybe the rumours about the late Seigneur de Charron were all true.
Still, I was not able to ponder too much on the former Master of the Land or his unibrowed, mysterious visitor as, soon enough, another fear mercilessly penetrated my greying soul, freezing my poor heart and turning my painful flesh into rags and cotton wool.
To my infinite surprise, Captain Farrell and Argillac decided to get round the Yard by going inside and heading towards a door bound with heavy iron bars that descended in the Palace’s viscera and in which I recognized the way to the cellars. Although I had not wronged anyone, I could not help wondering whether they were taking me there to slay me, so I whispered a short prayer to the good Lord, even if some little devil in my head was telling me contentedly that the Lord did not watch at all over those realms. I quickly made for the second time the Christian sign of the cross when they opened the gate; upon seeing my gesture, Argillac gave a nasty and grating giggle, while a mean grin stretched on the English Captain’s bony face and the latter’s eyes glimmered in the dark.
Then I went down to my ruin.
The hall was greasy and unlit by torches, except for the one borne by Argillac. Indistinct noise, other than our gasps and steps, pierced through the tar in the path ahead of me and I thought it must have been big rats – or maybe demons. Having reached a turn, the light seemed to get brighter; a bored English soldier – no doubt left to guard the place – was striding in front of what looked like a dungeon door which he sluggishly unchained. Giving a respectful salute and throwing me a quick glance, he let us in.
Never and under no circumstances would I have fathomed what I would find there.
Indeed, I was inside a dungeon, but a very special one. I will not describe the tools hanging on the walls; the rust on some of these undoubtedly served as testimony to the former Palace owner’s misdeeds, as those tools had been used for such infamous and damned activities, that no Christian would have held on to them for so long. Captain Farrell, however, was no Christian himself as, just like Seigneur de Charron, he had kept them. How used they were… I never wished to know; it was enough to realize that not all the brown spots were but rust. Nevertheless, the most horrifying thing in that room was not the old, sinister range of tools, but the object which, filling me with unspoken horror while shattering my last prayer, ruled majestically and obscenely in the centre of the small, repelling chamber, dedicated to the devil’s foul game.
It was a bed.
A bed, but a monstrous bed, covered in satin, silk, lace…, with fresh, clean and perfumed sheets, a bed with red curtains hemmed with gold and navy blue, a bed to whose leg the girl was tied, just like a dog…
If I ever had the calling of a priest, it died right then and right there.
I do not think she was more than twenty-one years of age, but the state she was in… I had never seen anything like it. She had no clothes whatsoever on her; each fiendish instrument Charron had gathered in his cellars for his demonic rituals seemed to have been skilfully used on the prisoner, undoubtedly by Captain Farrell himself. But beyond the festering wounds, the open cuts over which the flies were buzzing, the lost and beastly look of she who was, who I was convinced had been a young lady of noble origin – the young lady who was being searched for and cried after by her brother and parents – I could discern something of an unworldly purity, like a virgin soul, impossible to corrupt, like an invincible endurance before the torture that only the Devil could have brought upon the poor maiden.
That very instant, an unimaginable indignation rose in my soul, against those who had done such a horror, but also against the Lord who had allowed it. However, I found myself much too shocked to react in any way – and had I ravened on those executioners, they would have easily done me in. Argillac gave a thick laugh and thrust me to the girl’s bare feet, where I fell on my knees, scarlet tears my face adown. Captain Farrell placed his boot on my shoulder and addressed me on a scornful, wild and curt tone; they would lock me in there and I was to attend to the girl’s wounds, so that she would not die and he could have his way with her one last time. Should the prisoner die – the Englishman told me – I would take her place effectively. He was not as Barbarian as the former Seigneur, the bastard added, but he was there as master and he would not take No for an answer.
The little French lady had learnt it the hard way – and, if need be, I would learn it too. As he was talking, his voice would seem that of a goat – and I asked myself, deep down, how much of the former Palace owner’s personality had remained ingrained in the ancient walls, taking hold of the other bastard, shrewdly modelling him in the Devil’s image and likeness. However, I was not able to find an answer as the demon hit me a heavy blow in the kidneys and, uttering blasphemous words, went out, slamming the massive door behind him; he and Argillac were howling with laughter, while the French traitor cheerfully asked when his turn to enjoy the girl would come.
Through the latticed cellar casement I could hear the howl of the grizzly wolves going down in the Vale for the villagers’ children. I was certain their hunger would be quenched.
Babbling, I crawled my way to the prisoner, trying to whisper words of comfort, while my trembling hands were clumsily trying to allay her. I thought I saw compassion and kindness in her fading gaze, but I might just have imagined it. Tears carving down my cheeks – by some inexplicable and extraordinary phenomenon, my tears did not cease running from that moment on – I moved away her raven black, silky hair, caressed her white cheeks, kissed her pale forehead and deep blue eyes. And she dropped her head on my shoulder and it seemed to me God was allowing her to cry for one last time.
I succeeded in composing myself, though with great difficulty, and I inspected her wounds – there was nothing to be done… Perhaps a real Doctor could have helped her, had she been taken urgently to him and left in his care, but I knew that the girl was slowly drifting to her death in my hands. I tried to somehow unchain her or detach the casement bars, I knocked like a madman on the heavy door and I used a little water in the bowl to calm her pains, but it was to no avail. In the end, I tore my robe to shreds and I trampled on it under the girl’s sad eyes, which actually seemed highly reproachful that very moment.
This is how the only night descended passed and the grey autumn day came, without any change in my or the girl’s situation. Nevertheless, my presence there seemed to be of some comfort to the prisoner; I sat by her – spoke to her, told her my stories, sang to her as at no time had my soul gushed out so much love for mankind or the Lord as it did for her. And, as the day passed, I awaited Captain Farrell’s return, as now I knew exactly what I was to do.
Among the instruments in the chamber there was a blunt kitchen knife. I did not wish to know the purpose it had been put to, but I could very well suspect, as I had heard of some recipes from the books Charron was said to have read. Conquering my disgust, I took the wide-bladed tool and held it in my fist while I whispered to the wretched soul lies about how everything would be fine.
In the twenty-four hours I was there I did not say one prayer, I did not make the sign of the cross. Not even once.
It did not seem possible to me, given the circumstances.
At length, I heard footsteps in the hall and the bored guard unlocked the gate, letting a man inside. Pale-faced, but determined, I rose to my feet; I must have looked terrible, as the jeering, self-satisfied smile froze on the visitor’s lips. But it was too late – behind him, the English soldier had noisily drawn the bolts and, while terror and anger seized me because the one who had entered was not Farrell, but Argillac, I did follow my plan all the way through.
Of course, he tried to take out his sword, but I was faster; it seemed as though, suddenly, the fighting lessons I had received at my father’s mansion as a young boy had come to life. For the first time in ages, the kitchen knife seemed to have performed well. The blow was short, accurate, from left to right; the hot, scarlet, thick liquid splashed in my face – and, somehow, I felt God had returned to us, I felt we might still have a chance. Argillac fell gasping next to the mouldy wall, both hands spastically clenched to his neck, making the rotten tools jingle. There was noise on the hall, the dungeon door quickly opened on the outside – in a heartbeat, I saw the girl standing in the other side of the chamber, all her wounds healed: she had a seraphic smile on her divine face, kind stars in her sparkling eyes and she was undoubtedly dead. That instant, the English soldier entered, battle-axe in his hand; I drove the knife right into his chest going downwards, forcing him to kneel, at the very feet of she whom the bastard had guarded.
After which I heard footsteps again – several more this time. Seized by panic, I turned to the beloved prisoner as I would be able to put down only few enemies, before they would strike me dead. She grasped the question in my eyes, and I the answer in hers – I dropped to my knees, desperately giving her one last embrace, while her holy blood gently gurgled on my blade. At the very end, when her warm body had ceased jerking and shaking and her innocent soul had finally fled away, I carefully placed her down and stood up, as if drunk, hardly leaning on the doomed cell walls. My stomach contracted instantly and violently; I vomited for quite a long time, at the same time dropping the redeeming knife and waiting to replace the dead girl in Captain Farrell’s cellars.
Suddenly the footsteps stopped. I heard a stifled curse word, a voice – Jesus Christ, Armand!… – and that was when I lifted my weeping, mourning eyes off the red-drenched floor.
In the beech door forcefully slammed against the wall stood two horrified and armed young men – one of them had wild, brown hair; the other one had dark-blonde hair, in a ponytail, tied up with a blue dusty scarf.
They listened to me without interrupting. The tears kept running down and they do even now; that is why my robe is always wet, always moistly. As soon as the tribulation is finished, I intend to take the vows – if the Lord allows it. If He will forgive me for not saying one prayer in those twenty-four hours of excruciating, ghastly horror, in those twenty-four hours when my soul was weighed up.
And if He forgives my lack of faith, my hastiness and my killing.
The man named Arthur undid his blue scarf off his hair and left it on the grave in a tired end, then turned to me. His straggly, sweaty locks fell on his shoulders and he looked like a vanquished man.
“She was already dead when you stabbed her, Father”, he said in a low voice. “She was already dead when Captain Farrell defiled her for the first time. Perhaps he could have survived the wounds he had inflicted on her – but she would not have survived her self.”
I gave no answer. I did not share the man’s opinion.
The portrait painter took a small, carefully framed portrait from the cherry-red velvet bag and handed it to me.
“You may keep it”, he said. “You loved her more than the two of us ever did. It is yours to have, Father.”
Mechanically, without so much as a glance, I took the icon. Her icon.
“Her name was Alaise de la Vallière”, the man named Arthur added. “If it is any comfort.”
For sure, it was not. They departed. I was left with the portrait, which was much more than I deserved. It stays on the settle, but my eyes do not see very clearly through the veil of tears and the resemblance between the warm, radiant, smiling young angel watching over my sleep and the wretched soul whose life I had taken with my blade when her saviours entered is quite vague – too vague for me to believe in.
As for the latter two, not much can be put to paper; two white, mad shadows in my soul, two bleeding effigies desperately bent over the girl’s icon. I never found out who the man named Arthur was, but the portrait painter had signed his name on Alaise’s golden frame: Armand de Courtray.
About the author:
OLIVIU CRÂZNIC (b. 1978) is a Romanian writer, literary critic, poet, translator, anthologist and legal advisor. He published the Gothic novel …And Then The Nigthmare Came At Last (Vremea Publishing House, 2010), described by M. Pricăjan (in the celebrated cultural magazine Familia) as “The Walpole Moment in Romanian literature”. He was labelled as “Mr Gothic” in More Family Chronicles (Limes Publishing House, 2014), a book written by a famous literary critic, the recently knighted for “Cultural Merit” M. Opriță. He further published short stories and novelettes (most can be found in the special edition volume The Witching Hour, 2015, Crux Publishing House), very well received by the critics and the public. He is a contributor of various celebrated anthologies and magazines, alongside important names of the classic (Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert E. Howard, Rudyard Kipling, H.P. Lovecraft, George MacDonald, Guy de Maupassant, Saki) or contemporary (George R.R. Martin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ian R. MacLeod, John Shirley) universal literature. He won numerous national and international prizes (2011 Galileo Best SF&Fantasy Volume Award, 2012 European Society of Science Fiction Eurocon Encouragement Award, 2015 RomCon Best Article Award etc.). He was a Bucharest International Literature Festival 7th Edition (2014) moderator (for The Science Fiction Evening, special guests: Richard K. Morgan and Paul J. McAuley) and a Final Frontier Bookfair 4th Edition (2015) special guest.
Author’s Official Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/oliviucraznicofficialpage/?pnref=lhc