Black Magic
167 pages
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167 pages
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Description

Disappointed in love, weary of war, Goran von Hagen retreats to his idyllic alpine estate. He does not know the dark and ancient secret of the looming mountain--or that it will change his life forever. From Artemis and Apollo to Frey and Freya, on through all known pantheons, there are magical twins, so this sparked the tale of Mina and Goran, the von Hagen's first born. "Black Magic" is Goran's tale, dealing with the ancient secrets of his home place. Threads which were part of the original Red Magic story are elaborated, especially when some very old "chickens" come home to roost, turning the lives of the brother and sister upside down. I wanted very much to link the shape-shifter experience to the prehistoric -- a.k.a. sublime -- images discovered on the walls of caves all over the world. In "Black Magic," both the horned god and the wolf man enter our reality.

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Publié par
Date de parution 04 novembre 2014
Nombre de lectures 3
EAN13 9781773621647
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Black Magic
Magic Colors Series, Book 2
By Juliet Waldron
 
DIGITAL ISBNs
EPUB 978-1-77362-164-7
Kindle 978-1-77145-323-3
WEB 978-1-77362-165-4
 
Amazon Print 978-1-77362-166-1
 

Copyright 2014 by JulietWaldron
Cover Art by Michelle Lee
 
All rights reserved. Without limitedthe rights under copyright reserved above, no part of thispublication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into aretrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by an means(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or other) withoutthe prior written permission of both the copyright owner and thepublisher of this book
Dedication
 
To Magic, and to all characters whorefuse to leave the room quietly
 
 
 
 
 
 
Chapter One
 
Goran von Hagen rested on the crupperof his saddle. Clouds and sunshine chased across the mountainlooming overhead, but the cheerful view brought no pleasure. He’dridden directly from Vienna to the Heldenberg, making an eight anda half day journey of what was normally two weeks. He should havebeen happy to arrive, but the sight of the great hunting lodgedepressed him more than he’d thought possible.
After a decade, he’d resigned hismilitary commission. He’d left a confused, dirty Serbian war thathe wanted no part of. For the last months, riding homeward, he’dimagined bringing lovely Veronique to his family’s summer home on awedding journey which would reenact the one made by his father andmother many years ago. However, his joy upon returning to Viennaand his fiancé proved short-lived.
Veronique Haineau, the beauty who’dhaunted his dreams for the last two years, had, just weeks before,eloped with a wealthy Count, a much older man. Veronique had leftonly a letter, explaining that this was, in the end, ‘best for bothof them.’ She’d decided she would never find happiness living arural, mundane life with a mere ‘country gentleman.’ The newhusband, on the other hand, was a confirmed urbanite, the kind ofman who had a banker in every European capitol city.
Veronique of the golden eyes! How often Goran had imagined her delight at the natural wondersalong the way—the waterfalls, the tall, whispering pines, theblack-tailed deer and golden meadows! How often he’d imagined her,warm and yielding in his arms…
Around his Viennese friends, where newsof her defection was already public property, he’d tried to joke itoff.
“ Plenty of pretty womenleft for me!” He’d hoped a display of bravado would ease hisheartache, but it hadn’t, not a whit.
Goran urged his tired horse to a trotalong the tree-shaded gravel lane that led to the house. The vonHagen family might be a bit threadbare after the Napoleonic Wars,but he would have felt almost naked appearing on anything less thanthis elegant mount.
Through the terrible years ofshortages, famine and plague that had followed the catastrophicYear-Without-a-Summer, Heldenburg lodge had been often uninhabited.Goran noticed the shuttered cottages nearby, one of them beginninga lonely collapse. How much needed to be fixed!
He and Mina—twins—had spent much oftheir childhood here, in this secluded, peaceful landscape. Today,however, the picture-perfect snow-capped mountain behind the houseseemed a malign presence. Looking up at the high peaks where snowalways lingered, he wondered if Evil had always been lurking there.The mountain, whose moody beauty his parents had both loved sogreatly, today was an oppressive presence.
He looked up, at the gray rubble scarsprawling across the lush upper pasture. There, beneath tons ofgray rock lay the body of his mother, Caterina. She and threetenants had been moving cattle out of harm’s way when a suddenavalanche of rock and mud surprised them. It was the first timeGoran had been back since the tragedy, and he was surprised by thepain he felt— pain on top of pain —as if his losses old andnew had combined. Goran, a brave and much decorated soldier,immediately felt exhausted. It was as if he’d been defeated beforehe’d even begun.
At the front of the house, he tied hissweating horse to a wrought iron hitching post. He noticed theshiny paint, which signaled that the servants had been preparingfor his arrival.
“ Don’t worry, fellow.”Goran patted the horse’s sweaty chestnut neck. “We’ll get yourubbed and fed as soon as I look in.” He collected his saddlebag,which contained a change of clothes and a few personal items, andsighed as he studied the moss-lined brick terrace leading to theentrance.
He could almost feel Veronique warmlyholding his arm. The letter she’d left still haunted him. It hadsaid, really, almost nothing about her reasons. It might, hethought for the hundredth time, have been written by a stranger.Something basic, he thought, had somehow changed.
“ Ah, Herr Goran! We did notexpect you so soon—you must please excuse us! I just now saw you.”The words belonged to Herr Martin, the same gray-haired butlerwho’d always been there.
“ Never mind that, Martin.I’m just relieved to be at the end of a long ride.”
“ Indeed, sir. You must haveridden like the wind! It is certainly a pleasure for my old eyes tosee you here again after all these long years.”
“ Thank-you, Martin. It’sgood—to be back. Will you tell Herr Stocke I’vearrived?”
“ Oh, sir, he’s just awakefrom his postprandial nap. He’ll be in the study in a few minutes.Every day now, directly after dinner, he rests. We are all gettingolder and slower here, sir. Please forgive us. But Herr Eichel isalready at work.”
“ Eichel? Oh yes, fatherwrote about sending a clerk from his regiment to help out uphere.”
“ Well, sir, he and his wifehave been a welcome addition to our little society. We’re allpleased to have them. He’s able to ride about and see things forhimself, which Herr Stocke can no longer do.”
“ I’m planning to be herewell into September, Martin. There will time enough foreverything.”
The old man bowed him inside. In thefoyer, Goran found servants anxiously lining up according toprecedence. He would have to greet them all, so he sincerely hopedhe could remember everyone’s name. In the old days, his parents hadspent every summer at Heldenberg. They’d never stood upon a greatdeal of ceremony with the staff.
Except for an ancient armoire and aheavy, nicked catch-all sideboard and mirror set beside it, thefoyer was bare. The windows had just been cleaned; the smell ofvinegar lingered. Sunlight fell onto the slate floor in a brightblock, edged with a mosaic of color from the stained glassborder.
Goran, his sister Mina, and all theyounger brothers had often risked their necks sliding down the longcurving banister. Remembering what had once been scary, fun, andforbidden, remembering how his mother had scolded, his lips curved,but those childish days were gone now, part of his past. Even hismost carefree memories ended in sadness.
Yes, there was plenty tofill him with sorrow here, even without Veronique’s crushingdefection.
As he came into the foyer, servantswith gray hair hurried up to bow before him. There were new youngfaces, too, freshly recruited for the summer reopening of thehouse. Outside, beyond the still open door, a pair of stable handstook charge of his horse.
“ Gentlemen!” He retreatedinto the doorway to give instructions. “Take good care of him,please! Turk has just carried me all the way fromVienna.”
“ He’s real beauty, sir!We’ve a fine box ready for him. He’ll be cooled andrugged.”
“ Ahm— Kommandant !”The elder of the two grooms put a foot on the step and looked up.“Does he have any tricks we need to look out for?”
“ No more than any otherstallion. He’s tired, though, so that should help you handlehim.”
The men touched their capsdeferentially, and then led Turk away, one positioned on each sideof his tossing chestnut head. As Goran reentered the foyer, thehouse servants bowed again.
After speaking with them and trying tocatch all the new names, he spoke to the cook, Helma, about supper,and to the chief housemaid, Barbel. Everyone needed to be reassuredthat his sisters, his niece, and their servants were probably stilldays away.
Then, with Martin at his side, Goranheaded for the study, where the accounts were kept. As the dooropened before him, he saw a curly headed, solid man sitting atStocke’s desk. He leaned forward, pen in hand, before an openledger.
“ Herr Sergeant KurtEichel,” said Martin, “the Kommandant is here.”
Eichel, surprised, looked up and thenawkwardly arose. He used a cane which leaned against the desk andhe stood to bow. Goran saw that this new clerk, though otherwisehale, had a bad leg. His father had a penchant for employing oldsoldiers, the sort whose injuries kept them from combatduty.
“ You have taken us bysurprise, Kommandant. ”
“ I rode fast.” Goranstudied the room. He was tired, but after years as an officer, hewas used to giving orders. Perhaps it was a good thing, his earlyarrival. It was as good a time as any to set the tone. After all,his father said there had been quite a fall-off in returns from themanor, even more than might be expected through hard times. Henoted there were quite a few open ledgers piled one atop another atthe corner of the desk, as if much business was leftunfinished.
Not a good sign. Not at allas Stocke used to keep things…
“ You must have ridden likethe wind, Kommandant ! It is a long way from Vienna.I—we—Herr Stocke and I—hoped to have the books in better trimbefore you came.” Eichel flushed to the roots of his fair thinninghair.
“ Never mind,” Goran said.“I’ll be here for the rest of the summer. Time enough to sorteverything out.” The sigh of relief that came from the man wasalmost audible. With a sinking heart— this did not bodewell— Goran turned the conversation with a question, oneintended to put the new man at ease.
“ Where did you serve,sir?”
He learned that Eichel had almost bledout at Leipzig, a leg artery had nearly been severed. He’d taken ashot from a musket, a .76 caliber ball. Against the odds, Eichelhad survived and now was “extremely grateful for your father’strust and continued employment.”
After a little of this, Goran retreatedupstairs, leaving the anxious new employee behind. He had a feelingthat Eichel was probably a decent enough fellow, but out of hisdepth. The notion didn’t do a thing to improve his mood.
A sturdy boy in neat woolenknee-britches trotted ahead of him, carrying a pitcher of waterordered from the kitchen. Goran was pleased with this quickresponse and more than ready to wash the journey dust away. He leftbehind Herr Martin busy in the hall, talking with the head cook andthe housekeeper about the problems his early arrival had created.He should have realized that his headlong race from Vienna wouldset everything here at sixes and sevens.
* * *
“ Years gone since youngMaster Goran has been here with us! Imagine!”
“ He was a man then, butjust look how broad he’s grown after all that time in the wars! Andhow he’s grown! I never thought that boy would be as tall as hisfather.”
“ Well, I always thought helooked like his father, even when he was little.”
“ Ah, he’s always favoredthe Herr Graf, but he’s got freckles like his mother, for all hisdark hair and broad shoulders.”
“ Why, I remember the nighthe and his sister were born…” Barbel the housekeeper began toreminisce. “I’d just come to work in the house when…”
The under-maids, who’d all heard thestory of Lady Caterina’s twins a thousand times, shared a look.Barbel’s ramble was cut short by the cook, who took advantage of apause to say that their young Master had grown into “a mightyhandsome fellow.”
“ So many years since thefamily spent the whole summer with us!”
“ Yes. The Graf and LadyMina always come and go so quickly now. No one stays long here—notsince the avalanche.”
At the mention of the bad years—1815through 1817—everyone looked grim. The von Hagens weren’t the onlyones who had lost loved ones during that dreadful time of cold,storms, floods, and famine.
“ Perhaps, if I had anotherfat estate to live on like they do, I wouldn’t come up here afterwhat happened, either.”
Barbel said, “It’s certainly felt likea long, sad time since dear Lady Caterina died on our mountain, andthat’s the truth. But come on, girls, we’ve all got catch up to donow that Master Goran’s here.”
* * *
Goran closed the door of the bedroom towhich the servant had brought him. It was the one his parents hadshared, and, as he considered it, he didn’t much relish the thoughtof sleeping there. He wished, now that he was alone, that Mina hadarrived, and that he hadn’t been in such a hurry to escapeVienna.
Goran’s father, Christoph von Hagen,had plunged into grief after the death of his wife. Although he’dfought despair with active duty, he had not been able to easilyshake his sorrow. Goran thought his virile, vibrant father had ageddecades during the last four years. The Graf’s dark hair, was nowstreaked with gray.
His father had been ordered away by theemperor on some diplomatic mission into Hungary. Before Christophehad gone, he’d written to Goran that he was to resign his militarycommission as soon as possible and return to manage the familyestates. His brother Rupert was tending the richer properties, theones closer to Passau, helped along by his remaining Grandfather.This had left the wilder, and once much beloved Heldenberg propertyto stagnate.
 
“ Mina has been a great helpwith your grandparents’ estates, but it is more than time for youto take the reins of what will eventually be a part of yourinheritance. Someone in the new council seems to think I can assistthe cause of Austria in the East, although I’m not certain whatthey expect. I have no idea why I have been singled out, thoughperhaps it is because it is no secret what I felt about theEmperor’s collaboration with Bonaparte. Perhaps because I’ve killedenough Turks over the years, it is known that the Bohemians stillrespect me. I’ve never been much of a diplomat, God Help me, butFrancis is still Emperor and I am his to command…”
 
After an exchange of letters, Goran andMina decided to make a summer journey to the neglected estate. Thiswould be the best time to ride the place over and find out howthings were in the fields and forests of their domain. Theiryounger siblings—all but Rupert—were still away atschool.
It was not, as his father had alwayssaid, a good thing to leave houses and property in the hands ofservants for any extended period. Even the best bailiff and staffcould lose their way. Herr Stocke, who had managed the place for solong, had grown frail, and the Graf had concerns about relying soheavily upon a man who long ago should have been comfortablyretired. At the time, Goran believed he could face anything withVeronique on his arm. Now, his twin, Mina, would have to help himstay strong, but she, her little daughter, Charlize, and hisyoungest sister, Birgit, had not yet finished their journey fromPassau.
Being alone in the house was painful.As soon as he had finished a good splash in the basin, Goranabandoned the master bedroom. He’d often pictured Veronique there.She’d have teased him, no doubt, laughing mercilessly about theantique bed-curtains. They were embroidered with an erotic subjectof nymphs and fauns—not at all to his, or to any modern—taste, buta work of art, nonetheless. They’d been purchased at great expensein pre-revolutionary France. Why his mother had never replacedthese wicked bachelor relics he had never understood. Goran hadheard stories that his father had been “a famous rake” before he’dsettled down to become a dedicated family man.
 
Damn Veronique ! How oftenhe’d imagined her here, standing before a mirror, letting down herheavy blonde hair. He’d have taken her in his arms, watched herlovely face flush with desire. They’d begin the prelude, as theyhad many times before, and this time—this time—it would happen, thefiery moment when she would allow him to enter her lushbody!

Goran donned his knee-length ridingcoat. Habit caused him to check that his boot knives were in place.During the war, he’d learned never to trust the safety of even themost familiar places.
He departed in a hurry, banging downthe stairs, for the bedroom seemed full of ghosts. From thesideboard in foyer he seized a half-full bottle of brandy. Hethought he’d walk—and drink. The house was worse than he’d thought.A sensation of loss and grief pervaded the familiar rooms wherehe’d spent a happy childhood.
Not to mention what he’dseen in Stocke’s once tidy study!
Goran could only imagine the hours ofmind-numbing book work which waited—and right now, he didn’t wantto think about it. He stalked through the small, overgrownornamental garden some grandparent or other had created. It was setin view of the long study windows, and had several slate paths, nownarrowed by encroaching flowerbeds. The whole place was overlookedby a lichen-spotted marble faun atop a pedestal. Balanced upon onecloven foot, with his head was thrown back in abandon, the creaturecheerfully played a flute. For an instant Goran paused to study it,remembering how Mina had always been a little frightened of it whenthey’d been children. She’d complained she sometimes had nightmaresabout the faun chasing her.
He was distracted from this idlethought when a pair of servants came rushing out to attend him.Waving them away, he continued, bottle in hand, disregarding thestares which followed. At the barn, he checked on his horse,well-lodged now as promised, in a roomy box stall. There was food,water and the two grooms were still at work, bringing Turk’s redbrown coat to a high sheen, picking his hooves clean. The stallionwhickered, happy to see his master, but also pleased with theattention he was receiving. Goran thanked the grooms, who appearedto know their business.
He left the barn and then kept onwalking, past the cottages where the once plentiful staff hadlived. A few chickens clucked about the shrubbery and smoke rosefrom chimneys here and there, telling him which were stilloccupied. Goran continued past vegetable gardens and through a gateinto pasture. Horses and cattle dotted the landscape. Tired as hewas, he kept walking, sipping brandy as he went. Now and then hetold himself to “ be a man” and “ pull yourselftogether.”
There was, as his father had said,plenty to occupy him here! The sooner he got to it, thebetter— but, damn it to hell, tomorrow would do…
His bright wonderful mother had beendead for four years. Looking back at the house, his gaze fell againupon the gray scar left by the avalanche. Dead stumps showed wherea pine grove had been shattered before the fall finally came torest. Somewhere, under tons of gravel and rock, lay his mother, theold smith, Zigmond, and stable hands Lukas and Dom, young cousins.He knew crosses had been raised at the termination point of theslide for Caterina and for the others who had been riding with heron that fatal day. His sister had written that the brave farm boyswere mourned as “too young to die,” and Zigmond, of course, theyboth remembered. He had been something of a legendary character, aman of strength and vitality despite his advanced years.
Goran walked on and on, studying hisland. Some fields lay fallow. Tenants had died, gone to the wars,or run away during the famines that had followed the bad years.Somehow, he’d have to attract more laborers. It would be difficultto rebuild a reliable workforce. Europe was in upheaval since theFrench Revolution and Napoleon’s great imperial gamble. The oldorder of things, no matter how much politicians and kings deniedit, was past.
He continued on, drinking until thebottle emptied, increasingly melancholy and exhausted. Alcoholhadn’t improved his mood.
Why did I drink all that? I’mbehaving like a reckless boy, not like a seasoned soldier, a maturegentleman of twenty-seven.
The sun lowered, gold draped across theboulder-strewn shoulders of mountain. Pausing to look around, hefelt a growing chill. A few clouds had gathered near the high whitepeak, but otherwise the sky was fair. A dry clear night was ahead,one full of stars.
He was surprised to see how far towardthe village of Heldenruhe he’d strayed. Doubtless he’d missed theearly supper that was customary at the manor. Although he felthunger pangs, he wasn’t moved to retrace his steps. Not yet,anyway. Again he wondered why he’d ridden here as if the Devil wasafter him, imagining he could endure that lonely house all byhimself—without the woman for whom he still yearned, without thecomfort of his dear twin and the little girls’ funnychattering?
He knew he should have returned to talkto Herr Stocke, who’d borne the burden of the place for so long,get started on the business of taking charge, act like the HerrGraf he someday would be. But so many things he’d held dear hadbeen lost—friends from childhood who’d died in the war, an adoredparent, the betrayal of his golden beauty. It was as if anything hecounted on, anything that was solid ground had been sweptaway.
Napoleon, that arrogant madman, hadbrought ruin to all of Europe and to Russia beyond, had destroyedthousands upon thousands of lives. And now, at the end, a richdecadent old man had swept Veronique into his arms! Goran was aleader of men, battle-hard—but tonight, back on this perilousmountain, he felt like a child, one who’d been, despite all hisbravery and valor— unfairly thrashed.
Wandering to the top of a rise, heheard music and voices and spied a curling cloud of smoke.Remembering that tonight was Midsummer’s Eve, he started toward it.He was suddenly ready to talk to someone—anyone—even if it meantthe beginning of business with his tenants. He was heartily sick ofhis own company.
Some minutes of brisk striding and hearrived at a clearing among the larches. In the midst of thegathering, a huge bonfire roared skyward. Around it, men, and womenin bright skirts, whirled to the rhythm of an old drum and thetinny shrilling of pipes. He knew that many peasants kept theancient holiday, as they kept many old traditions, and that thisfestival would end only with the sun’s rising on the morrow. Therewas a tapped barrel set up on one of several trestle tables, andanother squatting on the ground, waiting for later. The rich smellof roast pork floated past on greasy smoke.
At dawn tomorrow, lovers would emergefrom the woods, smudged and grass-stained. Faces shining, everyonewould feast again, this time upon fresh milk, bread andstrawberries. He’d planned to show Veronique the sights—anddelights—of this lusty rural festival. Thinking of her again, hisheart ached.
“ Good evening, MeinHerr .”
A girl appeared beside him, although hehad not noted her approach. She was a local maid, wearing a low cutwhite blouse and a gray, much-embroidered wool skirt. She wascrowned with flowers; her dark hair fell over her firm young bosomin heavy braids. Boldly, she laid a tanned hand on his arm. She hadthe high coloring of someone who worked longout-of-doors.
“ Good evening, Madchen .”
“ Madchen indeed,Herr Goran von Hagen!” Her rosy, round checks dimpled prettily.“Don’t you recognize me? I’m Sabine Maier, your Cattlemaster’sdaughter.”
“ And so you are.” It nowoccurred to him that Sabine, who he’d thought daring in strollingup to a noble “stranger,” was probably about the age of his brotherAlbert, around seventeen. She’d been a chubby child when he’d beenhere last—and now, suddenly, here she was, a tall, shapely youngwoman, boldly taking his arm.
“ Come down to your people,sir, and stay with us a while. We heard you were coming home, butnot so soon. It will be an honor for us if you would break bread atour feast.”
The older folk had apparently seen him,too, for many faces had turned expectantly in his direction. It wastoo late to leave, even if he’d wanted to.
So Goran, with pretty Sabine familiarlyholding his arm, went down into the glade. Here he was greeted byhis tenants. Some, he knew were kinfolk of young men who’d gonewith him to war, some of whom had not returned. These people tendedhis herds, his flocks of sheep and cattle. They tilled his land.Goran was a little drunk, of course, but he could certainly talkwith them and hear some of what was on their minds.
For a time after he joined him, nothingwas unusual. They led him to a seat in a circle of stumps at alittle distance from the cheerful route of the dancers. Here hetalked with local leaders, the saw mill overseer and the farmers,with a new, muscular young smith, and a few herders down from themountain. They were uniformly glad to hear that he was to stay forthe whole summer. There were some concerns voiced about how thingswere being managed at the “big house.”
“ Not to say anythingagainst Herr Stocke, you know, for he is a wise old gentleman,only, so it happens, he was ill most of last year and some thingshave been let slip…and the new man…well, he doesn’t know us, notthe way Herr Stocke does.”
Goran had learned from his father thatit was always a good idea to listen to the tenants. They knewfirst-hand what was wrong and often had workable ideas about how tomake things better. He promised he would visit them one at a time,and find out what their problems were.
Roast piglet and sauerkraut, skewers ofroasted goat, blood sausages, and flagons of black, hoppy beer werebrought to him with some ceremony by Sabine. She smiled andflushed, and her big dark eyes brightened when she spoke to him.Goran had a passing erotic memory of a new-to-the-game whore he’dhad one night in a Leipzig tavern and felt a corresponding rise ofinterest. Still, attractive as this girl was, she was also thegently-reared daughter of a trusted servant. He thanked herpolitely, and turned his eyes elsewhere, to the row of heavy setyoung wives who were now laughing, joking, and dancing arm in armaround the fire.
The food was delicious, hot, andfreshly made. Goran ate and drank his fill and then sat, beaminggratefully at everyone. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was untilhe’d begun to eat.
Village elders came to sit beside himand talk, clearly wanting to take advantage of their lord’sapparent welcoming mood. From them, Goran learned who among thevillagers had died since he’d been gone. He offered condolences tothe parents of soldiers who had not lived through the war, andpromised them assistance, if they should need it in the absence oftheir young men. In turn, the farmers all said how sorry they werethat his mother had died, “for she was a good mistress who caredfor everyone.”
The loss of Zigmond and the boys wasdiscussed. Everyone present praised Zigmond, saying that, even ifhe had been a bit crazy and not always reliably in his smithy, hehad been a generous, upright neighbor. Then the conversationcircled back to more condolences upon the loss of Goran’s “LadyMother.”
His mother had been, typically, out inbad weather with a party of men searching for cattle run off duringa storm. Separated by a little distance from the others, she, Zig,and the boys had been swept away when the rocks roared down fromthe mountain. Goran thanked everyone, some of them witnesses, fortheir honest sympathy, but began to heartily wish they’d let it go.After all, tonight, with so many disappointments and losses behindhim—and so much work ahead—he was weak as a kitten. It wouldn’t bemanly to burst into tears.
A narrow new moon disappeared over thebony flank of the mountain. Stars blazed. The dancers grew tiredand sat down to rest. The night grew colder. More wood was broughtto refresh the fire. Old people and children departed, or lay downto nap inside shelters woven of the green saplings which grew atthe edge of the clearing. He watched Sabine bedding down in one ofthese with two young girls who had the same big, dark eyes. Theymust, he thought, be little sisters.
A fight broke out between two men, butbefore Goran could intervene, it was quelled. The music of thepipes began anew, but these songs were softer, sweeter. Loversholding hands slipped away into the chill shadows of the trees.Goran watched them, but he was so tired now he couldn’t muster theenergy to nurse regret or longing. His head ached from mixing beerand brandy and from the physical aftermath of the longride.
After a time, he wrapped himself in anold cloak Herr Maier handed him and lay down among the ferns.Almost at once, though the heavy wool smelled of smoke, cattle andsweat, he fell asleep. This, after all, had been the pattern of hislife as a soldier, and a soldier he had been since his seventeenthyear. Sleeping rough, boots on, was nothing new.
* * *
How much later it was he couldn’tguess, but he awoke. A man sang words which sounded like German,but, half asleep, he couldn’t make sense of them. Goran rolled overand saw a small group holding hands and making a slow shufflingcircle around the fire.
A little sore and unsteady, he got up,shaking out the cloak and then tossing it over his shoulders. Aprocession arrived at the fire, of younger farm folk of both sexes,who carried a variety of objects. Some held flowers, others heldcarved wands, antlers, bowls and hay rakes. The circle parted andlet them enter, and they arranged themselves in a semi-circleinside. The chanting ceased.
Goran noticed someone had come to standbehind him. Turning, he saw Herman, Sabine’s father, now tossingback the hood of a long cloak. Herr Meier was a muscular block of aman with brawny arms and a large hard belly. Goran looked past himtoward the fire. Every face was turned his way.
“ It would greatly please usall if you could assist with our festival tonight, Herr Graf. OldZigi would have played the part, but he’s gone now.”
Everyone nodded. There was a chorus ofsoft “ayes” and they all looked so bereft that Goran wondered if heshould offer his condolences again, so he said, “Herr Zigmond was abrave fellow, my father always said, and a fine smith.”
“ And you are a brave man,too, Herr Graf. Young Janci and Pieter Block have told us how youtook care of their company during the great wars past, so we knowwhat you are. What Zigmond the Smith did for us, you shall notfear.”
Fear? The word rang oddly inGoran’s ears. Although he was standing, he felt more than half in adream. Still, Herman’s words were a sort of challenge.

A man who was a leader, who would bemaster of these —or of any men— must take up achallenge.
 
After he’d spoken, Herman bowed him,rather awkwardly, inside the circle. The ring, as Goran approached,opened to admit him. Not quite knowing what was expected, he walkedto the head of the circle where the oldest men and women stood. Inthe fierce shadows cast by the bonfire, it was hard to makeanything out, but as he came around he saw there was now a staffstuck into the ground. It supported a skull with a pair of curvinghorns.
That must have belonged to animpressively large bull, Goran thought.
“ Here, sir. Have a seat, MyLord.” A heavy, three-legged stool was carried forward and set downfor him. A young man rushed forward and knelt beforehim.
“ You must be barefoot likeus,” said Herr Meier. “Your feet must touch the earth.”
Puzzled, he turned. As the youth pulledoff his boots, the crowd eagerly moved forward. The men, he saw,had indeed removed their boots and the women their clogs. Square,calloused feet with horny nails peeped from beneath long skirts andbaggy trousers.
Thinking back later, Goran supposed hemight have been apprehensive, but these were only farmers— hisfarmers —people with whom he’d just spent a companionableevening, eating, and talking and drowning his sorrows in good ale,much as they drowned theirs.
An old woman—he thought he rememberedher as an herbalist his mother had occasionally consulted—drewcloser. She held a cup. Just behind her he saw Sabine, her cheeksreddened, her arched feet showing soft and white against thetrampled earth. She smiled too, but a littleuncertainly.
“ For the der Held !For the Hero, Guardian of the Berg and all of us.” The old woman’svoice rang out, bringing everyone to attention. She stepped forwardand then ceremoniously handed Goran an ordinary brown-glazedfarmer’s cup.
Goran looked at Herman, who just winkedconspiratorially and whispered, “Humor them, My Lord. It’s amidsummer tradition, to bring us good luck. You raise the cup tothe old bull to bring us rain and sun, good health and goodharvest. Drink it down quick, sir, so we can get this folly overwith. After all, we need a little sleep afore the cows aremilked.”
Goran put the aged vessel, the reddishglaze within faded and cracked, to his lips and smelled a strongbroth, with a top note of something heavy-sweet, like honey-mead.The liquid looked thick as gravy. It was hot, too, steamingslightly in the chilly night air. All those sun-tanned, lined facesgazed up at him. Much like his soldiers, they were expectant,waiting for him to act.
How bad could itbe?
Raising the cup in a salute to theskull, he downed the contents in one long swallow. The nextinstant, his hands flew to his throat, for the drink was red hotmetal. The cup fell and shattered.
As he gasped and shuddered, fightingfor consciousness, they closed in around him, their hands andbodies against his, crowding him, holding him up. They smelled likethe creatures of the field they were, rank with sweat, hard work,open fires and beer…
As he lay writhing on the ground, hisvision suddenly cleared, but the pain was shattering, as if he hadburst open from the inside. Half mad, he leapt to his feet againand saw that somehow he was taller than any of them—a giant! Goranthrew his head back and let out a bellow that echoed straight upthe walls of the brooding mountain. Hurling aside anyone who triedto hold him—as if they were men of straw—he raced into thegrove.
Although it was dark and the moon wasgone, he could see everything, although the world was green-tingedand distorted. Someway, although he couldn’t fathom how, left andright were equally clear. He was trying to reconcile this, when hesaw the women slipping among the trees, skirts hissing through theferns.
They were wives, women he’d mettonight. As they approached he could smell them—their healthybodies, their warm sex. They lifted their skirts, showing him darkdeltas and white thighs. The nearest one pulled up her skirt,displaying a voluptuous backside and braced herself against a tree.In a far-off place his humanity cried “No!” but the scent of womanoverpowered him. Tearing at his trouser flap, he leapt uponher.
He seized her on either side of herheavy buttocks and moved in. She moaned, but stood her ground,gripped the tree trunk ever harder. Like the rest of his body, thispart was enlarged, engorged, still it did not take long. Heexploded into her, as if this woman he did not know was Venus, awoman he’d long and passionately desired.
When he released her, he saw that thenails of his hands, usually neat and short, had grown very long.Lifting one hand, he saw a monstrous thing, ending in claws. Bloodtrails trickled on each side of her thick waist where he hadgripped her. Not knowing how else to make amends, he lowered hishead and licked the bloody scratches he’d made. She, still holdingthe tree for support, shuddered all over from his attention, as ifhis tongue seared her flesh. The bleeding stopped at once. Her skinglowed, once again perfect and unscathed.
Some distant part of his brain screamedat him to run, to escape from this madness, but other womenapproached. Each hopefully lifted her skirt, exposing flesh whichappeared to glow from within. As his gaze lit upon the nearest, asturdy woman he’d watched dancing earlier in the evening, he felthis member eagerly rise …
* * *
Goran awoke with a midsummer sun in hiseyes. By the height, he could tell it was already close on noon. Hewas naked, his body dappled in black and blue bruises, cut all overand covered with dirt. His head wanted to explode and his grointhrobbed. He felt as if he’d drunk a barrel of beer all by himself,leaving him sick to his stomach and blurry-eyed. Or perhaps, he’dbeen dealt a final celebratory blow to the head?
The borrowed cloak lay beside him alongwith remains of what had been his clothes. The boots leanedawkwardly against the three legged stool. He lay close to thecharred remains of last night’s fire, among food-smeared tables andbroken crockery. The pole and the horned skull were gone, though hecould see the hole the left behind.
“ What the hell?”
Something, although perhaps not, heprayed —the things he remembered —had happened last night. Hisbody, as he looked down at all those bruises, testified to it. Hewas just dragging the cloak around himself when he heard someonecrunching through the bracken. His head hurt so much he simply satand waited for whoever it was to emerge.
Here came Herman, Herr Meier, the onewho had challenged him to drink from the poisoned cup.
“ I should killyou!”
Instead of running away, Herman offereda square muscular hand to help him up. As he stood, Goran had thesensation, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he was onlya small creature— at least, far smaller than whatever he’d beenlast night.
“ You certainly could dothat, young Herr Graf, and no one would dare complain, for you aremaster here. However, if you kill me now, you won’t understand whathas happened.”
“ Understand what, youtreacherous bastard?” Trembling with rage, Goran leaned to collectone of his boot knives, lying on the ground by thestool.
“ What happened to you lastnight, after you took the cup? You remember.”
Goran passed his hand across his eyes.It was, to his relief, just a hand now, strong, brown andsword-hard, but simply a hand, with fingers and straight-cut, dirtyhuman nails. He did remember— a lot of things —most of whichhe heartily wished he did not.
“ As we said last night,sir, you are now der Held , the ‘Hero’ of this mountain. Youhave the mountain’s power; you carry a mighty and ancient spirit.You will heal this land after the terrible years we’ve beenthrough. You will make the crops grow and be our protector, afather to us all.”
Goran laughed. “As I may soon be, manymore nights with your women like that.”
He’d hoped to provoke the man, butHerman simply replied, “That is the midsummer way. It has alwaysbeen so. We knew you would someday be Held from the day yourmother gave birth to you and your noble sister. Your family has notcarried the burden of the god for many generations, not since thetime of your Great-grandfather Augustus. Even before Zigmond andyour good mother died, our luck has gone bad. After the floods andthe dark, cold summer came famine, renegade soldiers and plague.Some among us wanted to try to live without the old way, but wehave all finally agreed it was long past time to make another Held , to take refuge behind him in this time of evil. Whenyou appeared at our Midsummer festival yesterday, out of the blue,we all understood what was meant to be.”
Herman paused to offer Goran a flask.Parched though he was, Goran waved it away.
“ It is only water, MyLord.”
“ It’ll be a cold day inhell when I take anything from your hand again, Cattle Master.” Hebegan to stride away across the field, but it wasn’t as easy forhim to go bare foot as it had been last night. Herman followed him,keeping a few steps behind.
“ You can summon thetransformation whenever you wish.”
“ And why, in the name ofLucifer, would I do that?” Goran turned, lunged, and caught hiscompanion by the throat, realizing as he did that even his fingersthrobbed.
“ Herr Graf!” Herman gaspedfor breath, but he offered no resistance. “It is power—a gift! Now,your land and your people will thrive. Is this not what you, theMaster of this place, most desire?”
Releasing him, Goran shook his head.Wondering if he was still asleep, or if he perhaps had died and hadwandered into purgatory, he kept walking. After the strangledcoughing behind him stopped, he heard Herman doggedly hurrying tocatch up to him again.
It took more than two hours to reachthe grounds of the manor, for Goran had walked a long way the nightbefore. As they went, Herman talked and talked, spinning out moreand more of his crazy story.
It seemed “ der Held ” couldfight, and was invincible in that form, although his power wanedwhen he left the Heldenberg. The Held could shift shape andthe horned beast he’d been last night was not the only form hecould assume.
“ On this mountain, you arelike a god—an ancient one, but a god, nonetheless.”
“ God? You call that a god? The Devil, more like! I should summon the priests to hangyou—and the rest of your accursed village, too!”
“ We are your servants andyour protectors, sir, just as you are ours. No one born off thismountain knows the secret, and so it must remain. It is ourblessing, and, yes, as you say, for some of us, our curse. The Held is a god who is visible to his people, as it was in theold days, ever so long ago, before the Christ came. As you wellknow, we honor the new gods and saints, too.”
Goran made no more assaults. He wasalmost blind from headache, whether from mixing brandy and beer orfrom the foul potion, he didn’t know. He crossed the grassyapproach to the house, ferociously signaling away the two servantswho dared to approach.
Herman stopped on the lower reaches ofthe lawn, and Goran didn’t care if he never saw him again. With asmuch dignity as he could muster, barefoot and wrapped only in thatfilthy old cloak, he passed into the house and mounted the stairsto his parents’ bedroom. As soon as he shut the door behind him,the familiar scene tilted. Distantly, he felt himself hit thefloor. He rolled onto his side, felt his forehead upon the coolsmoothness of the smoke-dark oak planks, and prayed that he’d wakeup from this nightmare.
* * *
Later, he came to in a sweat. He’ddreamed he was racing among the pines, chasing someone, a verydangerous someone he had to catch, and when he did—it would bekill or be killed, for this dark shadow had a power which equaledhis…
It was impossible to go back to sleepin his parents’ room. He got to his feet and staggered into the dimhallway. He was half-way along it when he realized he shouldn’thave been able to see much of anything in the windowless darkness,but tonight it was illuminated with the same queer, greenish lighthe’d noticed last night, in the forest.
No, not exactly illuminated. The glowcame from within, as if the furniture, the long table, the oldchairs along the way, held an energy of their own. When he reacheda mirror, he caught a view of himself, also unsettling. Enclosed inthat strange, other-worldly glow, he saw not Goran von Hagen, but aman on fire, haloed with flames, crowned with spreadinghorns…
With a gasp, he hurried away to the endof the corridor, to the last door. Seizing the handle, he went intoa small room with a long narrow south-facing window. Through this,the bald gray peak of the Heldenberg loomed. It was the samemysterious presence which had overhung his childhood, for this hadbeen his bedroom, where his nights were spent after he and Mina hadbeen moved from the nursery room and separated.
The siblings had not taken to itkindly, this initial parting. Although they were male and female,dark and fair, and quite different in disposition, they were, firstand foremost, twins. He remembered how Mina had wept and how he hadhowled and broken the chamber pot in a rage on their first nightaway from the nursery, away from the time when they had always beentogether.
He remembered how he’d sworn at theservants and pushed over a chair and how his father had come tohim, telling him he was a big boy and a gentleman, and that truegentlemen did not take his anger out on servants who could notfight back. His father had picked him up and carried him to thewindow where they had looked out at the night, the moon reflectingon those great boulders which stood like sentinels where the highgrass ended.
His father Christophe had stayed,holding Goran against his shoulder. It was one of the last times hecould remember his father being so tender. Although Papa hadn’tsaid much, it helped Goran resign himself to the inevitable fate ofgrowing up. He would never get along well with his brother Rupert,the baby who’d come to stay in that much loved nursery room,although his sister, in one of those unaccountable femaledecisions, had quickly become fond of her new brother, had evencarried him around and played with him. She’d liked the babies thathad followed, too, Albert and Christian. Though he’d eventuallylearned to be a kind big brother, none of his siblings were asspecial or as close to his heart as Mina was.
Goran leaned his head upon a coolwindow pane. He heard the mountain breathing, a sort of low,rumbling purr. It seemed so natural that he only thought it oddthat he’d never noticed it before. Being in his old room, with thesnowy, stony peak visible, brought a renewed sense of calm.Whatever he’d seen, done or dreamed it would wait until tomorrow.Exhausted, Goran extended his body upon that narrow childhood bedand fell into a deep sleep.
* * *
“ Ah, Kommandant ! Isee you have decided to grace the table with yourpresence.”
Herr Stocke, once his school master andfor many years bailiff, fixed him with a rheumy gray stare.Inwardly, Goran felt himself shrink. In those few words he wasagain ten years old, a boy who had not finished hissums.
“ Yes, Herr Stocke, I foundthe midsummer party and joined it. I’m afraid it is more melancholythan I thought, being in the house again.”
As he took a seat, the old man’sexpression softened. “Well, well! We’ve all been through some badtimes, young sir. To be frank, I’m getting old and an old man isoften short-tempered. There is so much here for me to take care of,and I don’t manage it as well as I used to. I’ve been lookingforward to shifting the burden.”
“ I understand, sir. Lastnight…” Goran struggled to keep the images of the after-party at bay, “I did talk to the villagers I met, atleast, a good many, before—ah—their brau got the better ofme. I heard some things which I shall have to look into at once,especially from one of the boys who goes up the mountain to supplythe herders. He says there are brigands high up who steal andthreaten them.”
“ Whether it is brigands,deserters, or gypsies, they can’t agree,” said another voice. Thiswas Eichel, just now entering the room. “Please excuse me for beinglate, Kommandant von Hagen.” He bowed, hands neatly at hisside.
“ Ah, yes. This is CaptainEichel, my assistant.”
“ Yes, we metyesterday.”
Goran nodded in return.“Captain.”
Eichel seemed less anxious tonight.Goran hoped that it meant the office work was resolving.
“ Captain Eichel had the badfortune to come to us just as things became so difficult with theterrible weather and my health and all, but I’ve been more thanhappy to have him, and that’s a fact.”
The door opened again and a plumpwell-dressed woman came through. The gentlemen all rose while shedropped a low curtsy.
“ This is my wife, Anna, Kommandant ,” said Eichel.
“ Frau Barbel’s eldestdaughter, I believe.” Goran was pleased at how quickly he’d placedher. Years before Anna had been quiet and retiring, just anotherhard-working housemaid, but now, better dressed and more rested,she appeared prettier than he’d remembered. Politely Goran steppedforward and took her hand, leading her to the chair her husbandpulled out.
“ How very kind of you toremember me! Please pardon my late arrival! I’m afraid we’re notused to much ceremony these days, Herr Goran.”
“ Don’t begin simply becauseI’m here. Our family always lived comfortably at this house and Ihope we shall all do so again. After my sister and the young ladiesarrive, things will certainly be livelier.”
“ It will be good to hearchildren in this house again, sir,” said Herr Stocke. “At least,”he added thoughtfully, “as long as I can still get mynap.”
They sat down again. Promptly, thefirst course, a thick beef and barley soup, arrived. Wine waspoured, rather awkwardly, by a nervous, freshly-scrubbed youngserver. There came a rush of memories as Goran looked up at thefaded battle flags that still graced the room, trophies of hisfather’s long military career. The long table which could seatsixteen remained mostly empty, but flowers had been brought in andthe dark wood shone with fresh polish.
Family portraits gazed down upon them.The one of his von Velsen Grandfather Rupert as a young man in along waistcoat, wearing a curly wig and a sword, was amusinglyold-fashioned. Another, also from his mother’s side, was of hisGrandmother Albertine. She was seated, wearing a frilly white capand holding a pug. Beside her sat a tall, thin girl stiffly holdingembroidery on her lap. He remembered how, when the picture hadfirst arrived at the house during his childhood, his father hadendlessly teased his mother, claiming that she had probably neverstitched anything more than a sampler before the day she was madeto sit for the picture.
Both he and Mina had spent a long timestudying that picture after it was hung, for there indeed was theirbeautiful mother at the awkward age of twelve. The largestportrait, suspended directly behind him, he’d avoid for as long aspossible. It was one of his parents, in green riding jackets, withtheir favorite horses, his father’s bay stallion Brandy, and hismother’s sorrel mare, Star.
Long ago summers this same table wasalways full, of his siblings, his parents, and an ever-changingroster of visitors. During the early years of the war, there werehis father’s brothers-in-arms—and then, after Goran too had joinedthe service—his officer friends. His younger brothers’ friends fromuniversity had visited, and there was an assortment of cousins,businessmen, and even stray travelers. Well-spoken,down-at-the-heel gentry from as far away as England and Sweden wereincreasingly attracted to the “romantic” vistas of thesemountains.
And now, now, after arriving at theplace he’d longingly thought of as “home,” during the long, uglyyears of war— this ! Instead of safety, of a haven for hislosses—of his youth, of his comrades, of Veronique—a terrifyingsomething had become part of him. This dreadful secret was one hemust, at all costs, keep hidden. He was two people now, the newpersonality floating, watching, judging, while his ordinary humanbody spooned soup and made polite conversation. The other ,the one who hovered and watched , was an ever-presentonlooker.
He — That — It —was notgoing away.
I am half man and halfmonster now, or so Herman says. What in the name of God does it allmean? And how could there have been such a creature here—in myfather’s time, in his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s—with noone knowing?
Herr Eichel was saying something aboutrepairs that needed to be made on the roof above the west wing.Goran nodded, only half-listening.
Fortunate I packed a changeof clothing in the saddlebag—and that my boots, nicely shined,reappeared outside my bedroom door this morning. Otherwise, Ishould be sitting at this table wearing a musty yellow shirt, kneebritches and slippers that once belonged to my father, dug out ofsome moldy attic wardrobe...
 
 
 
 
 
Chapter Two
 
The following day it settled in torain, so he spent it with Stocke and Eichel working at theaccounts. The close work left him with yet another headache andwishing more than ever that Mina was here. Besides her company, histwin had always been much better at bookkeeping than he. During thepast few years, she’d assisted her father with estate business.Mina was, their father had written, “every bit as clever as yourmother.”
To get through the hours, Goran foundhimself doing as he’d always done during the war, immersing himselfin the here and now. Tending to day-to-day tasks was easier thanworrying about some unknowable future.
Much to his relief, during this time hedid not hear much from the other , although he wasuncomfortably reminded of its presence when, round about tea time,one of the pretty young new maids brought a tray of coffee into theroom. The sturdy girl seemed unsettlingly familiar. With a shock,Goran recognized Sabine, Herman’s daughter, the pretty creature whohad taken him by the hand and led him to his fate by the midsummerfire.
She did not raise her eyes, but actedthe part of a proper servant who hears and sees nothing, only thetask at hand. She spread a white cloth on the end of the table andset out the coffee pot, spoons, a sugar bowl and cups, asbusinesslike as if she’d been in service for years.
When she’d finished there was aninstant in which their eyes met. He was so taken aback by herappearance in the house, that at first he could find nothing tosay.
“ Good Afternoon, HerrKommandant Is this all you wish?” She was outwardly calm, buthe noted a sudden flush which went to the roots of her hair. Whenshe handled the cup and saucer, it rattled slightly before shecould set it down. The girl is, he thought, just as nervous as Iam.
“ How—how do you come to bein service—um—Fraulein?” Goran finally found his voice.
“ I—ah—I am here becauseyour Lady Sister will soon arrive with the girls, Master Goran. I—Ihave helped Lady Mina before—when—whenever she visits us atHeldenberg. Everyone else in the kitchen is busy tonight, so FrauHelma asked me to bring you coffee.”
“ Ah, I see.” But he foundhimself not really seeing at all, for he’d inadvertently begun torub his face with both hands in a desperate attempt to distract the other . It had been mostly quiet for the last day, but now itwas whispering:
Flesh like new milk ! And justlook at those breasts! How I’d love to bury my…!
“ Do you require anythingelse, Kommandant ?” The girl kept her voice level andrepeated her question. He understood she knew about the unrulyinvisible presence, but she was apparently brave enough to persistin playing her part.
“ No. No. This is fine.Thank-you, Sabine. And thank Helma for me.”
It took all Goran’s self-control not tograb for her round bottom when she turned to leave.
* * *
Once she was safely behind the closeddoor, Sabine leaned against the wall, gripping the empty tray. Theencounter had been about as unnerving as she’d imagined, eventhough she’d known it was inevitable.
At Midsummer, she had not known whatwould be in the cup old Mother Keck and her father had offered. Sheknew about the Held , of course, and knew that he was “made”with a magic potion, but she had been shocked and then frightenedwhen Goran transformed, for that’s when she’d realized what hadbeen done. Although, she’d seen Zigmond many times in other forms,she’d never witnessed the actual change.
Mother Keck had had insisted she comestraight away, back to the nearest cottage, so she hadn’t seen therest, although she certainly understood what would follow when thefarm wives led him into the woods. Ugh! Still, when sheconsidered, it was no different from the animals—the cattle, thepigs, the dogs and horses—with whose acts of procreation she wasentirely familiar. In that hot mode, she understood, men and thebeasts of the field were more or less alike.
Sabine drew a deep calming breath andresumed her walk toward the kitchen. She hoped she would notcontinue to see the hideous other lurking beneath the contours ofMaster Goran’s handsome, pensive face. She also hoped that he wouldmake a strong mount for the god. The last years had been terrible,making it clear to everyone how much they needed the Held’s protection.
At the kitchen door, she paused again,hand on the latch. She had a strong feeling that Goran—today, sucha polite gentleman, and, certainly, today so very attractive—wouldprefer she suppress those memories, too.
* * *
It took three days for the weather toclear, and when it did, Goran was more than ready to escape thehouse and begin riding the property. He’d settled into his boyhoodroom at the back of the house, the one which had the best view upthe mountain. His parents’ room was simply filled with too manymemories—and those damned obscene bed curtains!
He’d pulled them down himself, and thensummoned Barbel and one of the older housemaids who’d been puttingup with them for years. He issued instructions to fold and thenlock the offending items away inside a trunk and to replace themwith something—anything, no matter how inadequate or shabby! Thiswas, after all, the largest bedroom in the house, and it made sensethat Mina, the girls, and the nurse should be the ones to occupyit.
At the first sign of blue sky, he’dgone to the barn to saddle his horse. He’d been itching to get out.No sooner had he done so, than he heard the “Halloo” of coachmencoming up the drive. In a line, crunching and swaying across thegravel, came two muddy coaches and a cart, completely all laden.Four Dalmatians, tongues lolling, panted and barked beside thesweating horses.
Mina and the girls. Despitethe rain!
As he turned from the barn, he noticedHerman. His cattle master had apparently been watching him from theshadow side of the barn, feeling an obligation to keep close watchover the thing he’d just made.
“ Ah, Darling Goran!”Red-headed Mina accepted his hand as she stepped down from thecoach. An instant later, she was in his arms. In that instant, thedark cloud he carried lifted.
Here she was! Kind and brave, hissister, his beloved twin! He instantly felt much better, withhis arms around her. She wore a smart olive green traveling outfit,a form-fitting spencer with a row of military-style buttons and afull, matching skirt. The heels she wore added a few inches, sothat she, tall even in flats, stood nose to nose withhim.
“ So happy you are here atlast, sweet sis!”
“ Uncle Goran!” High voicescried out. He released Mina just in time to catch her daughter,Charlize, who leapt from the coach straight into his arms. He sether down quickly in order to catch the second, his baby sister,Birgit. They were both wild to escape.
“ Hurrah! We’re out of thatbeastly coach at last!”
“ Hurrah! Hurrah! We’re atHeldenberg!”
The little girls still loved the place.Goran hoped that such enthusiasm would certainly cheer himtoo.
“ It’s not a beastly coach.It’s a very comfortable coach,” Mina said. “And do stop thatjumping and shouting! It’s not lady-like.”
Heedless, the girls swarmed up Goran’ssides like a pair of monkeys. He hadn’t seen them often—mostly onleaves to Passau—but it was clear he’d made an excellentimpression. He just managed to hold them both, one in each arm,although this was no longer easy. They were seven and half now andboth were tall for their age. They wound lanky arms and legs aroundhim.
“ A kiss for you and a kissfor you!” Goran kissed first the rosy check of Brigit, and then theequally rosy check of his fair blonde niece.
“ Stop that at once, girls!Is that how ladies behave?”
Goran set them down, but they continuedto hang on his arms and jump.
“ I hope Sabine is here andready to chase after them. Trudchen and I are about worn out.” AsMina spoke, an older woman, the one who had nursed them both,peeped from the second coach. Disengaging his nieces, Goran walkedover to assist her down.
“ Greetings to you, Herr Kommandant .” Once her feet were on the ground, stoutTrudchen managed an unsteady curtsy. “And I’m very glad to see youhere and safe, young sir.”
“ It is good to see you too,good nurse.”
You are safer than ever—nowthat I am here!
Goran suppressed a grimace at thisreminder of the unseen companion.
“ How are things at thehouse?” Mina turned, but, as if in answer to her question, excitedservants came hurrying through the door. A flurry of greetings andwelcomes followed. Grooms from the stables arrived to assist thedrivers in unhitching the horses, hot and lathered from the longpull up the muddy switchbacks of the mountainous road.
Goran thought he heard mountain breathea long sigh, a sound like pure contentment. A gust of wind came,flipping the hems of the women’s dresses and causing Mina to holdher bonnet. Looking up, he saw white clouds piling around the peak,sending shadows of blue and gray to race in an antic play of lightand shadow.
Yes! Despite what you’vedone to us, we have returned to you.”
* * *
Mina, the girls and Trudy were escortedto the master bedroom. Barbel had agreed that Goran’s idea to putthem there was an excellent notion, for the room was large, brightand airy. Now that the French bed curtains had gone, it was anentirely suitable location. Barbel had re-arranged furniture, too,and called for extra bedsteads and feather mattresses. Servantswere busy everywhere, knocking parts together and setting up. Theroom would soon look quite different.
That evening, after supper, and afterthe excited girls had been at last been sent to bed, Goran and Minastrolled out to sit in the garden their mother had made on thesouth lawn. A servant followed them with wine, glasses and sweetbiscuits on a tray. It was a beautiful evening, still warm,although the usual evening chill was beginning to edge down fromthe height.
“ I’m glad you are here. Itwas mighty grim when I first arrived.”
Goran admired her as she poured alittle wine into their glasses, her auburn hair coiled neatly intoa soft green cloche, one which matched her eyes. Mina’s hair was anote less fiery than their mother’s had been, but she was every bitas tall, and quite slender, despite the baby. There was nothingretiring about her, either, although she no longer went intosociety—not since the scandal of Charlize’s birth.
“ Yes, it’s your first timeback, isn’t it? I’ve been up with Papa, so it is no longer quite sosad, although it will never be the same without…” Mina left thesentence unfinished. Goran nodded.
“ We had such wonderfultimes here when we were little.” He wanted beyond anything to sharehis secret with her, but what he could say, about thisnightmarish—mischance? Whether it would happen again—and Hermannseemed quite certain it would—he’d have to run, go up the mountainand meet his fate alone. He couldn’t take any chances on thathappening here!
“ What on earth madeFraulein Haineau behave so cruelly? When you wrote, I couldn’tbelieve it—not even of her. As you know, I never counted her amongmy friends.”
“ I have no idea, Mina. Atthe time of our engagement, her parents were pleased and said so.She accepted my ring and I thought we were—in love. Then, just afew weeks before my return, she eloped in the middle of the nightwith Count Meklau. When I visited the house, her parents werenearly as confounded as I was.”
“ Why ever would such abeautiful young woman chose such a relic? Good Lord, certainly he’swell-preserved and has that risqué last-century charm abouthim. He tells entertaining stories about all the famous people he’sknown and the places he’s been, but goodness, he must be seventy ifhe’s a day!”
“ Perhaps it was the seventyestates he is said to possess that tipped the balance.” Goranrepeated the disparaging joke one of his friends hadmade.
“ You seemed so certain ofher…and, so happy.”
Mina clasped his hand. Her eyes filled.Goran wondered if she was remembering her own tragic affair, whenthat so-called gentleman to whom she’d yielded her honor had provedto have a wife hidden away in the family chateaux inNormandy.
“ I knew she was attractedto him, for he always danced and flirted with her at parties, andshe seemed to enjoy his music and all those stories about the Courtof Versailles in the old days, but how could I imagine anythingserious? I suppose that was my pride, but we all knew the PrimaDonna Philipon lived with him. All I know is that my friends havesaid Meklau began to court Veronique as soon as I rode east. He mether at the opera, accompanied her to all the fashionable balls andmade her presents. Cousin Max took great delight in reporting allthe details.” Goran shrugged, a gesture he’d practiced many timessince his return. It was weak to feel so forlorn. Worse, he feltthe other smirking.
“ Fool! You enjoyed somefine, juicy women just the other night!”
Goran blinked hard, in an attempt tobanish the memories. He knew he would have to talk to Herman aboutall this, and soon. He hoped he wasn’t supposed to participate inan orgy every time he transformed. He wasn’t a beast, or, at least,he hadn’t ever acted like one, until the other night. He’d hadwomen, yes, but he’d never wallowed in brothels, like some of hisfriends. He’d put it down to the fact that he saw womendifferently, not only because he’d respected his mother, butbecause he remained so close in spirit to his twin.
Goran had been ready to fight a hundredduels when he’d learned of Mina’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy.However, by the time the news had reached his far-off posting, hisfather had already fought the all-important duel with the man whohad dishonored her. Mina’s lover was a flamboyant gentleman from anexiled French royalist family, Comte Didier de Blanc. He’d hadmoved in Passau society for well over a year without anyonelearning that he was married. Blonde Didier had missed his shot,but Christophe von Hagen had put a ball through the Frenchofficer’s shoulder.
Goran’s parents and his sister had bothwritten to beg him not to endanger himself by any further dueling,but he eventually fought one anyway, during a leave. He’d foughtwith sabers and won when blood loss caused his opponent, a secondcousin who ought to have known better than to take Mina’s name invain, fainted.
Mina had wept a thousand tears, firstfor the man who had betrayed her, and then ever deeper in shame forthe family whose name she’d tarnished. She wept for her belovedbrother and her father who’d risked their lives to defend the honorshe’d so easily surrendered. She and her mother, who was alsopregnant, withdrew to Heldenberg. There were no guests or huntingparties that autumn. First Birgit and then Charlize, had been bornduring one of those ferocious shut-in alpine winters.
It was two years later when Mina andher daughter returned to the Passau valley manor. Mina began to beuseful to her parents, learning from them and from Herr Stockeabout keeping the books as well as performing the usual oversightof household matters. She’d written to Goran that her days werefull, especially after her mother had died, for she’d begun toaccompany her father everywhere. Goran knew Mina was lonely, as allof her childhood friends and cousins were no longer allowed tovisit. He thought a few of them wrote in secret to their fallenfriend, but he knew that was cold comfort to his merry,warm-hearted sister.
Mina, like their mother, was anaccomplished horsewoman. Goran knew she took long solitary ridesand spent time currying her horses and talking to the cats and dogsshe loved. She’d filled her life with her daughter and her babysister, Birgit, who’d been only three when their mother haddied.
“ Well, dear brother,neither of us have been lucky in love, have we?”
“ Exactly what I’ve beenthinking, Sis.”
“ There will be another whowill love you better. How could someone not fall in love with myhandsome brother?” Smiling, she reached to pat his knee.
“ Handsome?” He laughedbriefly. “I’m not going to risk my heart again. This has played outlike some stupid farce, with me cast as the fool. I’m beginning tothink I’m as embarrassed as I am grieving for losing her. Maybe,like our practical Cousin Max, I should just look for a rich widowwho’d help pay the bills.”
“ Veronique cannot have beenthe woman you imagined her to be,” Mina said slowly. “Clearly, sheloved an old man’s fortune more than she loved you. Goran, dear, inthe end you must believe that you have been spared a horriblemisalliance. I, for my part, always believed she was entirelyheartless. You know quite well that there have been others beforeyou she’s led on and then dismissed.”
When Goran did not reply, they sat inquiet companionship. The last rays of the sun set the tips of thepines ablaze. In the barn, a horse whinnied distantly. Dun dairycows wandered up from the pasture, followed by a couple of small,dusty-footed boys.
“ Look at all those deer!”Goran pointed to the edge of the pasture. His twin followed thegesture.
“ Where?”
His sister’s eyes lit up when shefinally caught sight of them. A herd grazed daringly among thehorses in the farthest part of the field.
“ It is so very beautifulhere. It seems like a howling wilderness to almost everyone atfirst, but I’ve always loved it here, far more than I’ve ever lovedany city. It was hard, though, the winter Charlize was born, buteven with the loneliness and so much snow all around, I could stilltake comfort from the beauty. In those days, you know, I thoughtthe world had ended, but dear brother, I’ve discovered that itdoesn’t. Life just goes on, with or without you. The life I thoughtI’d have is lost, and now I have to find another one. As Mamaalways said, ‘time heals.’”
Goran nodded, but he couldn’t answer.His throat filled.
My sister has grown wise inthe ways of the heart. Her suffering has matured her, while I,though I’ve fought and I’ve killed, though I’ve learned to be ahard man and a soldier, I still have so much learn about thepitfalls of love...
She looked very beautiful to him withthe sun glinting off her hair, and he thought again how sad it was.Mina was twenty-six, but now she, his accomplished, handsome,spirited sister, would probably never be a gentleman’s wife. Goran,unlike her, still had a good chance for happiness.
Sabine came down from the house throughthe twilight. After a brief curtsy, she reported that the girlscalled for her. Mina, with a sigh, gave Goran’s fingers a press andfollowed the maid back to the house. He continued to sit in thegarden despite the gathering darkness, watching the moon rise.Shadows filled the valley like a dark fluid while the crown of themountain continued to glow gold, a flame not yetextinguished.
He sensed the other , andrealized too that Herman was close, so he waited. The odd greenlight flared as he gazed with those new eyes into night. Everythingappeared alive, not only the ruminating cattle lying in the fieldsor the herd of deer grazing by the forest wall, but the trees— eventhe rocks! Suddenly, he was on edge. The within-thing knewsomething he didn’t.
Soon enough, a stout figure appeared.Behind him, came another, a younger, slender man. Goran studiedthem as they drew near, fascinated by the warm red glow that shoneinside them. He could hear the delicate swish of the long summergrass beneath their feet.
“ Herr Goran? May weapproach?”
“ Of course,Herman.”
“ We need urgently need yourhelp.”
“ To …?”
“ Well, sir, up themountain...a boy has come to us to say that the shepherds need yourhelp at once. The bandits have carried off one of their youngwomen. We have sent word to the Kameraden to go withyou.”
“ Kameraden ?”
“ Those who know yoursecret.”
“ Are theremany?”
“ A fair number,sir.”
“ It is an honor to belongto the Kameraden , sir.” This last was spoken by the youngerman, one whose lean, rugged features jogged Goran’smemory.
When he did not reply at once, Hermanadded, “Herr Kommandant , this is my nephew, Bem, who is downfrom the high meadows to find you.”
“ Bem—Bem Jager, is thatyou?” Goran and his father had fought on different fronts duringthe continental war, and Christophe had mentioned in a letter thatBem was among his soldiers. Goran and Bem had known each other longago, boys on the mountain. Now, here was his old acquaintence, fullgrown into a short, thin body. Years ago, despite their differencein size, he and Goran had once punched each other to astandstill.
I, Goran remembered with embarrassment,had been a rich-boy ass! He’d learned that day that size andstrength weren’t everything when he was knocked to the ground by awilier—and dirtier—fighter. It had ended when his father had jerkedthem both up by the back their shirts and told them to shakehands.
Then, characteristically, the Graf hadset them a task. Goran and Bem had spent the next three daystogether, wandering high on the mountain in search of lost sheep.By the time they’d found the sheep, caught them and driven themhome again, they’d discovered respect and liking, aswell.
“ Ja, MeinHerr .”
“ Good to see you back onHeldenberg! I wasn’t sure whether you’d made it home ornot.”
And, Goran thought with remorse,whether Bem had survived the famine and plague years that had comeafter the fighting…
“ Hard times, My Lord, andEvil is still much with us. The girl they’ve taken is mycousin.”
“ We must find her as soonas possible. I’m truly glad you are part of this Kameraden .How many others?”
“ Twenty-one of us, sir, butsome of them are elders, not fit to fight.”
“ That’s a lot of people tokeep a secret.”
“ That’s how it has alwaysbeen,” said Herman.
“ My mother always said thatmountain folk knew how to keep their own counsel.” Goran rememberedthe odd way she’d smiled every time she’d made that remark. Hebegan to wonder if his mother had known the dark secret of thisplace.
“ We must go at once, MyLord!” Bem broke in upon the reverie. “We must saveher!”
“ How many do you think wewill need to handle them?”
“ It will not take many, MyLord, if the Held is with us.” said Bem. “Uri says they arecareless and leave tracks a child could read. The Schlafmen have already armed and gone—but they are not soldiers, MyLord.”
“ Will horses beuseful?”
“ Indeed, sir, mostly tospeed our journey. This rabble are on foot.”
“ We will go at once. Themoon will light our way, but first I must be certain the manor willbe safe in my absence.”
Bem left, saying he would ready the Kameraden who lived nearby. Goran and Herman continued tosit in the growing darkness. He hadn’t imagined he’d be fightingagain so soon, but in a way, it was a relief to be planningsomething he understood. A sortie to deal with hardened outlaws wasa dangerous business, but he’d done it before, and so it was, in away, easier to contemplate than the other problem hefaced.
“ Herman, you said when Iwish I can summon it?”
“ Yes, My Lord. And you willneed him tonight.”
“ How, exactly do I dothat?”
“ He speaks to you, does henot? You feel him inside?”
“ Yes.”
“ Well, he understands whatwe’ve said well enough. Never fear on that account.”
The man seemed certain, but Goran knewthere were more questions he wanted to ask.
“ Herman—when I—change—can Idie?”
“ Not until the Held is done using you. But before he’s ready to go, you cannot diewhile your feet are on this mountain.”
“ Done? So, he was done with Zigmond?”
“ We believe so. It was timefor a—as my granddad used to say—‘new mount for themaster.’”
Goran, dismayed, considered the termsHermann had used for a long moment before speakingagain.
“ And when I’m away fromHeldenberg?”
“ Then, well, I’ve heard youcan change, but there are—complications.”
“ Which means—?”
“ You change, but it will bedifferent, weaker. Zig told me that once he became a little dog. Inthat form, he was wounded when he’d gone to Passau with your fatherthe Graf. That is exactly what the old stories said, the ones Iheard when I first joined the Kameraden many years ago. Zigsaid it is because the Held’s power truly comes from thismountain.”
Goran shook his head. Here he was,discussing this madness matter-of-factly with a man he’d alwaysbelieved was a plain, ordinary, earth-bound farmer. Suddenly, hedidn’t want to talk about it anymore. He could already feel thething inside, swelling with anticipation.
So, what I always used towish for before every battle – invincibility – I nowpossess!
Yes, but onlyhere.
“ Thank you for helping us,My Lord.”
“ Thank you for — lookingafter me — Herman. I fear there is still much I don’tknow.”
“ Knowledge will come, MyLord. I am certain you will make good use of your great power.Soon, those evil-doers shall feel it.”
“ I hope so.”
“ After we have dealt withthem, sir, you must visit Alaric. He’s very old now, over onehundred, he says, and, God Love Him, as he’s the oldest among us,he’s the only one keeping count. He was of the Kameraden long ago, as far back as your great-grandfather Graf August’s time,so he’s seen more than any other. He can tell you many things whichI cannot.”
“ Over a hundred years!That’s a goodly term.”
“ He’s says sheep’s milk isthe reason.”
Goran smiled. It was a relief to hearsomething familiar out of the mouth of this farmer, the one he’dimagined he’d known so well.
“ Now go and alert the restwhat we are about. The barn and the house must be protected in ourabsence, so a watch must be organized for tonight.”
They parted, Herman off to be certainthe stables were guarded and that horses would be ready. The moonmade it bright as daylight while Goran returned to the house. Apair of sturdy young men were already standing armed by the door,and he was glad to see the old practice had been kept up,especially after the bad news he’d just heard.
His people were still suffering fromthe aftermath of the long, brutalizing war. It seemed he’d comehome just in time.
On the way in, he called for Martin.When he’d explained the situation, Goran added, “Summon everyone inthe house and tell them what we must do this night. The men of thehouse need to be armed, the doors and windows locked, and the houseand the barn and animals kept under close guard too.

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