The Girl with No Name Ch. 25bycaligula97236©
Chapter Twenty-Five -- The Destroyer's Servant
The final months of the winter of 1756-57 turned out to be good ones for the Defenders' encampment. It was a time of peace and rest that passed more quickly than Danka had expected. Commander Sáupeckt's militia was totally cut off from the outside world for several months, but there was plenty of food.
Danka's life among the nymphs became considerably more pleasant under Dalibora, the new squad leader, than it had been under her predecessor. Oana was brave, tenacious, and competent in battle, but she was too focused on harsh discipline and had a hard time maintaining morale among her women when they were not campaigning. Dalibora was much more gregarious and everyone liked her. She had a quiet charisma that Oana totally lacked, keeping the squad under control though her personality instead of constant threats of the whip. She had a way of talking to her subordinates that made them want to please her. She skillfully and patiently manipulated the other women's emotions, to the point she exercised absolute control over the squad within a few weeks.
Danka wondered how competent Dalibora would be in battle. Oana's personal strength manifested itself in a chaotic fight, while Dalibora's character seemed more suited for keeping bored women under control during peacetime. One detail that troubled Danka was Dalibora's lack of curiosity about trying new weapons and fighting tactics. It occurred to Danka that perhaps the squad should have two leaders: Oana to lead the women in the field, and Dalibora to lead the women in the encampment. Of course, such an arrangement would not be accepted by anyone: either Oana would have to lead or Dalibora would have to lead.
Danka spent some of her limited free time reviewing her journal and the miscellaneous notes she had collected during her travels. She called upon Isauria to help her transcribe her work; not because she really needed the girl's help, but to force her to practice writing and penmanship. Isauria was not the best student: she much preferred to be running around with the male apprentices. However, Danka emphasized that her former servant needed to learn how to write to improve her chances of having a decent life in the Duchy. She also had a premonition that Isauria would be more important either to her future, or to the future of the Duchy, than anyone could have imagined at the time. Perhaps, when whatever disaster the Destroyer had hinted at took place, it would be Isauria's Path in Life to survive it, just as it would be Danka's path in life to survive. If the girl was indeed to be a witness, she'd have to know how to write well, whether she wanted to or not.
As Danka noted to the bored adolescent:
"You have no life to go back to in the Kingdom. You've seen, as much as I have, how the Destroyer has completely wrecked your homeland and killed your people. So, it doesn't exist anymore. Like it or not, you're now Danubian. You are a girl of the Duchy. You will marry a Danubian husband and raise Danubian children. That is your Path in Life."
And... it was true. When Danka saw Isauria running around with the other apprentices, it was obvious there would be no going back "home" for her.
During the snowbound months, there was plenty of work for the militia's doctors. While it was true there were no war-related wounds, there were injuries from accidents, falls, burns from carelessly handling fire, training mishaps, and frostbite cases. Ilmátarkt was an expert at setting broken bones, while his assistants were competent at sewing shut open cuts and gashes. Danka's knowledge of alchemy was a valuable addition to the medical staff's capabilities, contributing the Followers' knowledge about disinfectant and sedating patients before operations. She asked the cooks to provide her with live animals upon which to practice and gave hands-on demonstrations about the use of anesthesia.
She also shared her university medical diaries with her husband. Ilmátarkt found the readings very interesting, not only for the information they contained, but also because they were all dated 1752-1753. Danka claimed to have been at the university for three years, but the dates on her notes did not support that claim. Ilmátarkt fully understood his wife was hiding something about her past.
Danka may have considered her husband strange for his weird blasphemous ideas, but her mixture of lower and upper-class habits was equally strange to him. Her vocabulary and table manners were typical of a woman from the nobility, but her accent was definitely lower-class. She could kill and butcher any animal with ease and confidence: she was not afraid to dig her hands into a pig's intestines or pull a chicken's head off. She knew a lot about farming, hunting, and fishing, but she also knew a lot about music, geography, religion, and literature. She could sew both fine embroidery and thick leather. She knew how to prepare a huge variety of food, from primitive stews to fancy pastries. She knew a lot about politics and guild protocol. She had visited every major town in the western half of the Duchy, along with a few places outside the country's borders.
Ilmátarkt pondered the bizarre mixture of traits in his wife. He correctly guessed that she was born into the lowest class of laborers, but she had widely traveled and somehow spent enough time with the nobility to pick up many habits unique to the Duchy's finest citizens. He calculated it would have been between 1753 and 1755 when she learned the traits of a noble-woman. He was curious to know her secret, but he was a patient man and could wait for her to inadvertently drop clues and hints about where she really was and what she really was doing during the two missing years of her life.
Danka's bucket contained manuscripts that she did not share with her husband. Those included her writings about the battles of Hórkustk Ris, Sumy Ris, and Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt, as well as notes on the slave trade and the settlement of Malénkta-Gordnáckta. Ilmátarkt saw all those extra notes in the bucket, but decided not to look at them. Danka was smart and would have been perceptive enough to figure out if he was looking at her writings. Ilmátarkt wanted and expected to find out the truth about his wife, but he wanted the clues to come from talking with her, not from digging through her papers.
By the middle of April, the snow had disappeared and the forest was coming back to life. The paths had cleared enough to allow the Defenders to make their way towards the villages to celebrate the Festival of Rejuvenation, which at the time was still carried the Christian name of "Easter". In the 1750s, the True Believers still associated Easter with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Old Believers had returned the holiday to its more ancient Pagan origins, as a celebration of the Creator's victory over the Destroyer by returning warmth to the Realm of the Living.
The spring festival was also important for the Defenders and the villagers who hosted them. However, the isolated militia members followed neither the Christian nor the Old Believer traditions when they celebrated. Instead of the flowers of the Old Believers or the crucifixes of the True Believers, the militia celebrated with dancing and midnight bonfires to honor the Destroyer's triumph over the son of the Roman God.
According to the Defenders' version of events, the Roman God's son was simply killed and the Resurrection did not happen. Instead, following the death of the "Son of Man", the Destroyer triumphed over and over, first by destroying Jerusalem, then by destroying Rome, then by destroying all of Europe through multiple invasions against Christian countries. The Roman God had proven himself weak and incapable of protecting his followers. Only the Destroyer could triumph, only the Destroyer had true power in the Realm of the Living. The Roman God existed as a hapless witness, unable to do anything to prevent the wrath of the Destroyer.
Danka felt sick when she understood how the Defenders celebrated Easter and what the holiday meant to them. She did not want to believe that the Destroyer had such power over everything: she always wanted to hold out hope that somehow the Creator, or the Ancients, or even the Roman God, could combat the "Profane One" and win. She shared her doubts with her husband, but his answer was predictable and did nothing to ease her despair:
"The Realm of the Living is inherently destructive. It has to be, because otherwise there'd be no room for new life. Everything decays and rots. As for the violence, that's just because we haven't figured out how to create enough food, so men don't have to fight over things like farmland. We don't need fantasies like the Destroyer to explain why people invade each other's territories when they're starving. The Defenders are right about the Creator, the Roman God, and the Ancients. They're helpless to protect us, but it's not because they're weak, it's because they're imaginary. But so is the Destroyer. It's all fiction. Imagination."
Several militia units descended the muddy wooded trails from various winter campgrounds to converge on the largest of the three settlements. They traveled on foot, but fortunately they had mules to carry their supplies. The journey was wet, tiring, and lasted several days. Danka spent the most of her time talking to her husband about the area and some of the Defenders' previous campaigns. Meanwhile, Isauria walked alongside Dalibora and learned more about the system of trails the militia members used to move about the region.
Before entering the settlement, the nymphs stripped off all their clothing and placed it in a bag guarded by Isauria. Although the weather was still chilly, they gave up everything, even their shoes. The naked militiawomen walked into the settlement in single file and gathered with their village counterparts, who also were completely undressed. To Danka's dismay, the villagers' hair was unbraided. The oldest woman among the villagers ordered the nymphs to kneel and close their eyes. A villager took her place behind each nymph. Danka held her breath. Sure enough, she felt a stranger's fingers undoing her braids. She cringed at the horror of knowing all those men, including her husband, would see her with her hair undone. She was used to being naked in public, but having her hair loose was an unbelievable humiliation, a sacrifice of women's honor to appease the all-mighty Destroyer.
The purpose of the celebration was to acknowledge the Destroyer's power over the Realm of the Living. There was a large pile of scrap lumber piled in the village square, surrounded by torches. In the middle of the pile was a sacrificial victim, a captured foreign priest dressed in a purple smock that was supposed to mimic a royal robe. The prisoner represented the son of the Roman God and would be burned to death as an act of defiance against a divine being who supposedly was all-powerful. The Defenders' priest was un-seemingly cruel to his captured counterpart, taunting him and encouraging him to pray to the Roman God, just to prove his deity was powerless to save him from the true power of the cosmos: the Destroyer.
The naked, sweaty women danced for hours to the beat of sinister-sounding drums and flutes, completely exhausting themselves before midnight. They had to prostrate themselves on the muddy ground while the fire was lit. As the flames consumed the foreigner and separated his soul from his body, the Defenders' priest called out to the Destroyer to share the power of devastation with the militia so they could have a successful campaign against their enemies. The victim's screaming seemed to continue for an eternity. Danka later learned the fire had been set up so he would die slowly and suffer.
When the victim's agonized screaming finally subsided, the militia's Priest shouted into the air:
"In the end, we all come to you, whether we want to or not!"
The drums continued to beat as the men indulged themselves with ale. The women were dismissed and immediately went to the settlement's bathhouse to wash off the mud and re-braid their hair. Just like everything else in that village, the bathhouse was a wretched, primitive structure. As she waited for her turn to bathe, Danka thought about the pristine washroom in the Grand Duke's castle. She had hated her life as a concubine, but at the moment she wouldn't have minded spending a nice lazy afternoon sitting in comfortable warm water in the Grand Duke's marble tub.
When she returned to her husband, Danka couldn't bear to look at him. She was dishonored: he had actually seen her with her hair unbraided!
Ilmátarkt was not scandalized, but he did not have any sympathy with his wife's distress. He told her not to be ridiculous and that he could not have cared less about her hair. To him, the Danubians' fixation with braided hair was as idiotic as their belief in the supernatural.
Danka did not reply, but she could not accept his casual dismissal of the most important part of a Danubian woman's honor. Braids were what defined a Danubian woman's very identity. How could he not consider braided hair as vital to proper protocol? What was he, a foreigner?
Springtime is normally a time of celebration, a time to be happy about the end of food shortages, confinement, and the physical discomfort of being cold all the time. Danka, however, did not feel any joy as the weather warmed up and the snow melted. Soon enough, the Defenders would return to the border and the battles with the Kingdom of the Moon factions would resume. There would be desperate surgeries on wounded men, of which she could expect only half to be successful. She'd have to endure the guilt of triaging patients and making the decision whether to operate or whether to administer a dose of poison to put a casualty out of his misery. She'd have to kill with her crossbow, yet again, and in doing so would add more suffering to her soul in the Afterlife.
Oana returned to the encampment during the first week of May, with a new squad of nymphs recruited from the Vice-Duchy of Rika Chorna. Whatever faults Oana had with her personality did not interfere with her ability to identify dissatisfied women and talk them into abandoning their lives and responsibilities. The recruits did not really understand what they were getting themselves into, but the promise of a silver piece for every month of service and learning how to handle weapons was a tempting alternative to their drab and oppressive Paths in Life in the Vice-Duchy. At first glance it seemed the new nymphs were as varied a group as Danubian women could possibly be. Some of the women were peasants and some were from the guild class. Their ages ranged from 16 to 37. However, they had one thing in common: they were all fugitives. Some of the older women were fleeing bad marriages, and some of the younger ones were fleeing their fathers. Two were thieves who had spent a humiliating afternoon in the pillory, three were fleeing money lenders, and one was fleeing from a jealous landowner's wife.
Danka said nothing as she watched her former commander with her new subordinates. She had to hide her lingering hostility; the resentment that she felt from the older woman's desire to flog her for no good reason. However, like everyone else in the militia, she knew that bringing up old disputes in front of Oana's new squad would only cause trouble and hurt the morale of the nymphs.
There was no mention from anyone about Oana's previous command, nor how she lost control of her squad. The new recruits never learned that the women in Dalibora's unit had been under Oana's orders just a few months before. What mattered was that Oana had redeemed herself and was ready to train and lead her new squad. Oana was a more experienced fighter than Dalibora and had a better instinct for strategy, so the squad leaders agreed that Oana would be the one to lead movements and attacks. The disadvantage of the situation was that Oana's squad still needed training and experience, so Dalibora's veterans would need to be extra careful about providing cover for the newcomers as they maneuvered in the forest.
Danka had to accompany her husband to the smallest of the three villages to assist the birth of the elder's baby. The birth was uneventful, but Danka noticed several geese running around the village square. She remembered the Followers' explosive goose-eggs, knowing that her husband's laboratory had all of the ingredients to make hand-bombs, assuming he could obtain some gunpowder for her. She told Ilmátarkt about the eggs and how Ermin used them so effectively against the True Believers. He was very interested. If only there was a way to preserve the eggs' shells while allowing the villagers to keep the contents. He pondered the problem for a few minutes before searching through his surgical equipment. Eventually he created a small circular saw that, when properly twisted, would drill a hole in the shell without cracking it. He approached the village elder and explained what he needed: as many empty goose-egg shells as the village could provide. He would leave behind the extractor and pay the villagers a copper coin for every five intact shells they could deliver to the encampment.
The dim-witted settler looked at the doctor with an incredulous expression. A coin for empty egg shells? Yes, but they had to be neatly drilled with no cracks and completely cleaned out. The village elder took the cutter and said nothing. Danka had no doubt she'd receive her egg shells, but there also was no doubt the elder had no intention of sharing Ilmátarkt's coins with any of his neighbors.
While she waited for the first batch of egg-shells, Danka prepared the chemicals and refined the gunpowder needed to make the hand-bombs. Through her husband, she sent out word that she needed volunteers who know how to use slings. Several male archers showed up, from whom Ilmátarkt selected four, based on their ability to accurately aim their rocks. He explained that the volunteers were about to try out an experimental weapon, which needed to be launched with slings.
When the first batch of eggshells arrived, Danka had all of the ingredients needed to assemble four explosive bombs and two flash bombs. With trembling hands she carefully poured in the first layer of explosives, laid in a layer of melted beeswax to separate the next ingredients, and poured in the accelerant. Another layer of wax, and she put in a detonator that was designed to go off as soon as the seal at the top of the egg was broken. Each bomb was extremely volatile: even being turned upside down was enough to set it off.
As much as she hated doing so, she had to sacrifice one of each type of bomb in a test to make sure it worked. Ilmátarkt and Danka led the four volunteers away from the camp. Danka took charge of the sling and loaded the goose-egg. She took a deep breath, swung the bomb and released it. She screamed at everyone to get down and cover their ears. The deafening explosion blew apart the nearby trees and rattled the entire area. The blast brought dozens of panicky Defenders scrambling towards the crew with drawn crossbows and loaded muskets.
Commander Sáupeckt showed up, as dumbfounded by the explosion as everyone else. He was present to witness the flash bomb being tested. Danka was enormously relieved that she had been able to duplicate both types of the Followers' secret sling-bombs.
Because Danka "belonged" to her husband and thus not allowed to speak for herself, Ilmátarkt was responsible for explaining the goose-egg bombs and how they could be either thrown or used with slings. He gave as much credit to his spouse as protocol would allow, but ultimately he would receive the honor of introducing the new bombs to the unit. Had Danka not been married, she would have been able to claim credit for the innovation.