Click to read Part 1 of the story.
The frigid wind whipping through the tower door greeted Pavel as he reached ground level. He wanted nothing more than to run home and sit huddled by his fire but instead he crouched in dread in a protected corner until the three men of the Inner Circle reappeared, again wrapped in their rich cloaks.
“My lord, a messenger came here saying that your daughter is sick, to the point of death,” Pavel said.
The mayor looked at him hard, but then nodded. “Then let us hurry, boy,” was all he said. Pavel picked up the lantern and led the way back down to the town.
Pavel left the mayor at the door of the manor and went back to his small house. His mother was up when he returned. She looked up from her sewing, the weariness indelibly etched on her face. She never complained to him, but as Pavel had gotten older, he began to realize how hard the last fifteen years had been for his mother, the former daughter-in-law of a viscount and wife to the heir. Now, she was only a peasant woman and the least skillful of them all. When Pavel had been young, he had only thought about his own discomfort and yelled if the food she made was burned or tasteless. He would hide from the other children if his clothes were ill-mended. But she remained always like a lamb to the slaughter, though the execution stretched out over years of toil.
Pavel went and stood by the fire, still trying to process the horror he had seen in the dungeon of the castle. “The mayor’s daughter is on the edge of death,” he said after a moment. His mother’s hand went to her mouth but then dropped as she looked up hollowly at him.
“What will he do to us this time?” she asked plaintively. “When the crops were bad last year, he took a double share from our stores and when one of his cows broke its leg, he took our only one.”
“This is not our fault,” Pavel said.
“When has it ever been?” she asked. “He will kill us yet, even if it takes another fifteen years. He has a vendetta.”
“But why should he?” Pavel asked. “He killed my grandfather, but I was a baby and you were only his daughter-in-law. What could we have done to him?”
“I never told you,” she said softly, putting calloused hands over her face for a moment. “Perhaps I should have. My only crime was that I would not be his wife. I rejected his proposal and later married your father. I thought he had forgotten about it, until that night, when the people rebelled and he, their leader, took the title of mayor. A civil enough title, but he is as ruthless as any noble.”
She faced the fire, but continued to speak, slowly repeating to herself a litany of grief and injustice, dredged up for yet another bitter dose of recollection. Pavel went to bed before she had finished and her dreary murmuring cast ominous shadows over his dreams.
Pavel had just woken up the next morning when someone pounded on the door. He opened it to see their neighbor, Domnul Iorga.
“Warning,” Iorga said immediately. “Wolves are about, they say. The Cernea farm was attacked and six sheep were killed and mutilated. Also, one of the farmhands who was sleeping in the barn is dead. Carry a blade with you if you go out.”
“Thank you, I will,” Pavel said. “Have you heard any word on the mayor’s daughter?”
“Dead, they say. Last night,” Iorga said. He gave Pavel a meaningful look and crossed himself. “God be with you and yours.” He turned and went up the path to his house. Pavel looked back, but his mother was busy at the fire and had not heard. He would not tell her, at least not yet.
Pavil worked as a messenger for the mayor, as well as his duties as the midnight lantern carrier for the Inner Circle’s gatherings. He arrived at the mayor’s manor after breakfast and the guard Andrei informed him that he was summoned directly to the mayor’s study. “God be with you,” the man murmured after him.
“Is it true that Crina died in the night?” Pavel asked.
“So they say,” Andrei said. “Wadim was on night watch and said that the mayor came back after the first hour and then left again, carrying his daughter with him in a carriage. Wadim swears she was alive when they left, but an hour later, when they returned, she was covered with a sheet. I would have thought they’d go to Domnul Florea, the surgeon, but his assistant said no one came there all night.”
Pavel only nodded and hurried inside. All he could think of was the hideous monster he had seen in the dungeon of the castle, and how it had attacked Iosif. Was it possible the mayor had sacrificed his own daughter to that thing? There were rumors that the Inner Circle was involved in satanic rituals in the castle late at night. He had never believed them, but now a shock of fear ran through him as it occurred to him that what he had seen might have been the devil.
He was ushered into the mayor’s study immediately. He bowed and stood in front of the narrow wooden desk with the ceremonial mace lying across the front.
The mayor had changed overnight. His hair and beard were uncombed and his face looked haggard and wolfish. His dark-rimmed eyes bored into Pavel as if he were trying to read his thoughts.
“Did you go down into the tower last night?” the mayor asked immediately.
He knows. He knows everything, Pavel thought, as a chill of terror went down his back. “I would never go into the tower, my lord,” he said.
“Liar!” The mayor’s fist crashed down on the desk. “Sergiu saw you go in.”
“No! He was gone before—” Pavel hesitated. “I mean, yes, I did open the door to see if you were coming, but then I shut it again. I did not go in, I swear.” He was desperate in his denial; not matter what guilt his soul might endure from lying, it was far better than admitting he had gone down into that dungeon now.
“A door in the dungeon that is always kept locked somehow became unlocked. Who could have unlocked it, but you?”
“I do not know, my lord, but I swear that I did not go into the tower,” Pavel said. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back and hoped his guilt did not show through onto his face.
The mayor gave a snarl, but then collapsed back into his chair, as if his strength had suddenly deserted him.
“Go,” he said, “but may calamity find you swiftly if you are lying.” Pavel fled.
“I’m glad to see you still in one piece,” Andrei said when he had reached the courtyard again. “Did you hear about the other fatality last night?”
“Yes, the Cernea family’s farmhand,” Pavel said. “Domnul Iorga told me. Wolves, he said.”
“I have not heard of that one,” Andrei said. “I mean Doamna Korzha. Her husband said they were getting ready for a bed when a monstrous face appeared in the window. Big green eyes and teeth like a wolf, they say. The old woman screamed and fell down dead, her fare suddenly paid in full for her journey to heaven. Her husband said it was a face like a devil. Hey, where are you going?”
Pavel had taken off running towards home. There was a monster loose in the region and it was his fault. He had to get home and keep that thing away from his mother.
(to be continued)