Leysa prepares yet again to make a great sacrifice for her family, but Yuri longs to resist their oppressor; by Paul Stansbury.
"Go on, you bastard," Yuri growled, "why not include the stones in fields if you intend to take everything? You and your master are nothing more than beasts preying on the weak."
"Watch your words," Osip warned, looking up from the paper. He stared into Yuri's eyes, "He does not take well to vassals chiding his attendants. Know this, fool. The tribulations, real or imagined, of you and your wretched family are of no concern to me. My job is to list everything according to his instructions and place a fair value for which the assessment is made. Nothing more and certainly nothing less. He is rather emphatic on this matter. I dare say your tongue will not be so quick to wag when he comes to your door to collect what is due." He returned to his writing.
Yuri hung his head. "Forgive my insolence. But surely," he pleaded, "can't you show some discretion?"
Osip paused, lifting his head. He raised his left arm. Only a thumb and forefinger protruded from the mangled lump of flesh at its end. Sweeping back a long, tangled shock of greasy hair from the side of his face, he revealed a ruddy scar running from his temple to his shoulder. In the center, all that remained of his ear was a ragged hole. "Need I remind you of his reward for discretion?" Leysa winced at his disfigurement. In comparison, her own scars seemed insignificant. "And your daughter, Ekaterina, how old is she?" he asked.
"She has nothing to do with this," Leysa said, trying not to let her voice betray her fear and loathing.
Osip let his hair fall back down. "Livestock, crops, females - all chattel. Makes no difference to him. Young or old," he hissed, looking directly at Leysa, "All to be assessed; all to be taxed."
"She is but twelve. Still a child. He will have to make do without her," Leysa pleaded.
"Perhaps, still, he will want to examine the goods."
"She is not 'goods'," Yuri shouted, pounding the table with his fist. "She is my daughter!"
"Enough talk," Osip said laying the quill on the table. "Your prattle is of no interest to me." He corked the ink well and placed it and his quill in the pouch hanging from his shoulder. As he stood up, he produced a flat bundle which he tossed on the table. A sneer curled on his brittle lips. "Dremoh wishes one of you to wear this." He taunted Leysa, "Whether it is you or the child, I cannot say." Then, he limped to the door of the small dwelling, the bill of taxes in hand. He drew a hammer from the pouch and nailed the sheet to its rough surface. Looking toward the sun setting behind the trees, he said, "I will be off. It is not his pleasure to find me when he comes to collect. He will be here soon."
Yuri jumped up and ran to the doorway. He watched Osip hobble off. When he was sure the crooked man would not turn back, he slammed the door shut. Turning to Leysa, he asked, "What are we to do? This time, I will not let him have you or Rina!"
"Perhaps we will have enough money to pay the tax." Leysa offered, not believing her own words.
"Have we ever had enough money? That misshapen pig, Osip, always sees to it that we never have enough. Never enough money to satisfy the devil. He will not be sated until he has had his way. Tonight will be different. Tonight when Dremoh comes, he will taste my knife!" Yuri pulled a long blade from his belt, jabbing it forward in a stabbing motion.
"This one does not die at the hand of man. Yuri, your blade is useless against him."
Yuri fell silent, hanging his head. "I would gladly give my life if it would free us. I am ashamed. I am not a worthy husband. I cannot stop this anymore than prevent the sun from setting. It is you, dear wife, who has paid most deeply, and soon Rina will take up the debt. If not tonight, then surely the next time. Were I strong enough, cunning enough, I would have found a way to free us, but I am weak and afraid. Would that we should all die rather than remain under this yoke."
Leysa put her arms around Yuri. "Perhaps we will find a way to escape this burden."
"We could leave," she said.
"Leave what little we have? And go where? Another valley, only to become slaves to another devil? It is hopeless," Yuri said shaking his head. "No, this is our fate. Ours and that of all those who came before us, and all those in this valley who live under his oppression. We were born to this misery and are bound to it for all our existence." He looked into her eyes. She was still as beautiful to him as the day he had first seen her; yet, there was ever the look of sadness about her. It had been years since he had seen a true smile on her face, and he could not escape the belief that he had failed to provide a proper life for her.
"Still, we must have hope," she said. "Who knows what may come. We may yet escape."
"It is hopeless. We shall never be free of him."
"Yuri, you must not give up. Freedom comes in many ways, and not always in the fashion we expect. You must remain strong; if not for yourself or me, then for Rina."
"Leysa, you are our strength," he said.
"You must promise. The time may come when you will have to be strong for all of us."
"Yes my love."
"Now, daylight wanes and I must prepare," Leysa said, hugging Yuri briefly before turning away.
She fought back her tears as she walked to the table and snatched up the bundle Osip had left. She moved quickly to their sleeping room, drawing the curtain behind her. Placing the bundle on the bed, she removed her coarse woolen dress. Her hand drifted down to the bundle. She loosed the binding, peeling back the wrapper. Leysa knew a neatly folded, white linen robe awaited within as it had all the times before. Still, she shuddered at the sight of it. Turning away in disgust, she walked over to a small table on the other side of the room. On it, sat a wooden basin. Earlier, she had filled it with the water she had brought down from the mountain.
Enough light still filtered in through the window for her to see her pale reflection on its surface. I am indeed a pale reflection. We all are. Her once raven hair was streaked with grey, her cheeks no longer full. The scars Leysa bore began to tingle like a spring sunburn. He is close. I must get ready. I must give him no reason to look to Rina for his satisfaction. She dipped her hands into the still water diffusing her reflection. She bathed as the Znakharka, Oxana, had instructed before slipping on the robe.
Next to the basin, sat the small vial Oxana had given her. Leysa picked it up. Its surface was covered in spidery runes. The night before, after Yuri and Rina had fallen asleep, she had slipped out of the tiny cottage and ventured up the mountain to seek out the shaman. There, under the full moon, she had met with the old woman to plead for help.
"What you ask is possible," Oxana had said in a solemn voice, "but such a thing does not come without consequences." She had chosen ingredients for the potion from an array of pots and pouches assembled in a semicircle on the ground where she sat, then placed them in a small scuttle. "Fetch some water from the spring while I light the fire," she had ordered, handing Leysa a hollowed gourd. "Pure water drawn under a full moon must be used." Upon Leysa's return, she had poured the water into the scuttle and set it on the flames. "He has no interest in our kind. We have nothing which can be taxed and nothing he desires. You might say, we do not suite his taste. Yet the suffering of those under his control is well known." While the potion brewed, the pungent aroma of herbs mixing with smoke from the fire engulfed them. Just before the moon set, Oxana had poured the potion into the vial and handed it to Leysa saying, "Fill the gourd before you leave and use the water to bathe before he comes. Now, on your way if you are to be home before the sun breaks," she said, touching the hand in which Leysa held the vial. "Mind you, drink this down just before he comes to you and no sooner. You will remain awake, but feel nothing until the potion runs its course."
Leysa pulled the curtain aside and stepped back into the main room. Yuri was sitting at the table, head in hands. He did not bother to look up as she sat down. Neither said a word, waiting in silent dread. The world outside turned dark as the sun dropped below the horizon. Soon, they could hear the faint sounds of galloping hooves and the terrible clatter of iron clad carriage wheels. The noise grew until the din was almost too much to bear, then it abruptly stopped, leaving only the labored panting of the horses to be heard. They waited in silence, listening to the scrape of boots on the threshold and then the rustle of the bill of taxes as a finger traced its entries. Suddenly, the door flew open, revealing a thin, black silhouette standing in the murky, swirling dusk. Leysa watched Dremoh, holding the paper in his bony fingers, glide through the doorway. A vaguely repugnant odor, reminding her of the fall slaughter, wafted through the room. He stopped at the table and threw it down before Yuri.
"Your bill is due," said Dremoh in a low, menacing voice. Yuri held out a bundle. The sound of coins clanked as he dropped it on the table. Dremoh hefted the bundle, holding it at arm's length. "This is not enough to settle the levy."
"Then send your dog, Osip, to fetch the rest," Yuri pleaded. "Take what livestock and grain as you may, sell it, eat it, do with it whatever it is you will, but please take nothing else this night."
"Indeed, Osip shall return on the morn and take whatsoever is his pleasure, but there is more due this night than a bag of silver and some cattle can satisfy," Dremoh hissed. "I see Leysa understands as she has put on the robe, but I will inspect the other first."
"No!" Yuri shouted, rising up.
"Sit down, fool," Dremoh barked. "Did not Osip remind you what happens to those who displease me? Would you have Leysa suffer the same fate as he?" He sneered as Yuri slumped back to the table, then ordered, "Now bring me the other!"
Leysa stood up. "Enough, I will bring her," she said, voice trembling. She made her way to the door and stepped into the evening darkness. She called for Rina, who emerged from a thicket beyond the road. Leysa put her arm around her daughter drawing her in close. She could feel the young girl shivering. "Come, Rina, and fear not, no harm shall come to you this night. Remember, I love you," she whispered, brushing away the tears that had welled up in her daughter's eyes. Leysa continued to hold her daughter close as they walked back to the cottage.
They stepped from the pale blue moonlight into the main room of the cottage. It was dimly lit by the pallid glow of tallow candles. They stopped just inside the door. Dremoh turned to face them. He drew in a deep breath as his eyes devoured Rina. He held out his hand motioning toward the young girl. "Come closer my morsel." She did not move. "I said come, now!" he demanded, voice rising in anger.
Leysa nudged her daughter forward, whispering, "Fear not, this is not your time. He will examine you, but you will not suit his tastes this night." Rina took a few hesitant steps forward until she stood halfway between Leysa and the black robed figure.
"This one favors her mother," Dremoh said licking his lips. "Fair skin and raven hair. Leysa, you need no mirror save this one's face to see your own reflection." He stepped in close to the trembling girl. He circled her slowly, sizing her up as he would a prize mare. Coming full circle, he was once again directly in front of her. She flinched as he dipped his sallow face down to within inches of hers. He inhaled intensely. "Nothing quite like the aroma of the female," he hissed. A frown broke across his face as he let the air drain from his lungs. He straightened up and backed away. "She has not had her first blood," he spat, glaring at Leysa. "But, of course you knew that."
"You would not have believed me, had I told you. And so now you know," Leysa said flatly. "And now to business if you are to collect what you have come for." She turned and walked to the sleeping room, whisking back the curtain as she disappeared inside. Swiftly moving to the table she grabbed the vial. Oxana's words drifted in her mind, 'You will remain awake, but feel nothing until the potion runs its course.' Pulling the stopper from its throat, she drank down the bitter contents.
In the main room, Yuri stood up and put his arm around Rina. "Let us leave while he collects his tax," he muttered, ushering his daughter to the door. She started to say something, but Yuri quickly put his hand over her mouth, "Say nothing, see nothing," he said. They stepped out of Dremoh's icy stare into the warm night.
Satisfied the two were gone, Dremoh walked to the sleeping room. Drawing the curtain aside, his eyes found Leysa standing by the bed. The room was lit only by the moonlight filtering through the window. She did not turn to face him. He sidled up to her, breathing in her scent. His heart quickened and his hands trembled as he loosed the ties of her robe. It fell away allowing the moon's glow to wash over her pale flesh. She stood motionless as he wrapped his arms around her, nuzzling her neck.
As Oxana had promised, Leysa felt nothing - nothing of the pain, nothing of the humiliation she had felt the other times. She did not feel the coarse cloth of his filthy black robes against her back, nor the chafing of his clawing fingers on her arms as he held her fast. She did not feel the sharp sting of his fangs as they tore into her neck, reopening old wounds. She did not feel the shame of his abuse.
He moaned as he drank in her blood. For Leysa, the sound of it was faint and far away. Dremoh paused, allowing her blood to flow down his throat, then abruptly pulled his head away from her neck. He gasped, staggering back. Leysa turned. She watched while he clutched his throat, convulsing. "What have you done, witch?" he screamed, black blood spewing from his mouth. "I will kill all of you!" he shrieked, falling to his knees, eyes rolling back in his head. She said nothing. He struggled to say something else, then pitched face first to the floor.
Leysa stood still until she was satisfied that Dremoh was dead. She retrieved her woolen day dress and put it on. Its coarse texture prickled her skin, signaling her sense of touch was returning. I have little time left. She picked up the robe and draped it over Dremoh's corpse, then staggered to her bed.
Yuri burst through the curtain. "Rina and I were across the field. I heard screams," he panted. He stopped short at the sight of the body on the floor. Then, seeing Leysa on the bed, he rushed to her. "Leysa, what has happened?" he asked, falling to his knees.
"I have killed him," Leysa said.
"I went to see a Znakharka. I poisoned him with a bane she gave me."
"I don't understand."
Leysa turned her head so Yuri could see the fresh wounds on her neck. "No, Leysa, no," he sobbed. "Where is the Znakharka? I will bring her to you."
"No, she cannot help. The bane which poisoned Dremoh, will also kill me. We are free."
"But why do you have to die, we could have done something else. You said so yourself."
"I said freedom comes in many ways. Dremoh poisoned me long ago. The curse that ran in his blood, infected me and so too would Rina have been poisoned when he turned his vile appetites to her. I could not let that happen. His death frees you and Rina. Only my death can free me. Remember, you promised to be strong."
Yuri kissed her then, laid his head against her breast, enfolding her in his arms. She took a few shallow breaths, then lay still. He lingered for a moment, holding her, before raising his head. In the moonlight, he could see a smile on her lips.