Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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Sacrifice

by Borut Slokan




 

 

I.

Hunting these pagan Slovens is a tough business, thought Ludwig. They hide in the forests like moles, and you have to get them out of the bushes any way you can. But the Karanthanian Duke Valtunk was clear: we must exterminate the pagans. The time when they worshipped mountains, trees, wells, rivers, and animals, and prophesied the future, was over. It did not matter whether they believed in the afterlife or not; what mattered was whether they worshipped idols, especially Perun, Veles, and Mokosh.

Wherever he and his man-hunters came across statues of these idols, the whole village would burn, and the luckiest could become slaves; they killed the rest. The duke did not want to risk a new pagan revolt, which would again bring the help from Bavarians and Franks to ravage the countryside and take whatever they liked, all of course with the blessing and encouragement from the Bishop of Salzburg, who considered himself the religious and secular overseer and almost the ruler of Karanthania; and he was constantly arguing about that with the Patriarch of Aquileia. 

He began to dress in a black mood and to shout at his neighbors,

"Get up, you lazy swine! Shall I help you with a kick? You would only eat, but who will hunt the heathens?" The young, gentle Paul, who had only recently still "drunk his mother's milk," stood up immediately. Carsta, the dangerous Carsta, filled with strength and muscle, just sat down and watched everything, as always, from under his forehead, gloomy and suspicious. 

He threw the remains of the rabbits and the bread from the day before on the bench. Master Engelbert thought it would be enough to prepare them a hearty lunch, but they should take care of their food in the meantime. No one had any particular respect for pagan hunters, and serfs avoided them entirely as if they were contagious. No wonder, he thought, since they all have pagan names: Stojmer, Črnel, Tugomir Dobren, Ostrik. Kasne, Radana, Ljuba, Motimir, Višegoj and so on.

He was personally given the Christian name Ludwig at his baptism by the priest Friedrik. Although the ceremony was in Bavarian, a language he did not understand, he still remembered it with pleasure.

"Hello, first start with the food, so you don't faint in the middle of the hunt!" he cried. So the three of them sat down on the bench and hungrily started to eat yesterday's leftovers. They chewed on the tough and not very tasty parts of the old hare roast and the bread they were tearing from the common loaf.

"And this is food for us?" said Carsta grimly.

"Only the dogs get something like that in the master's house."

"Be glad that Master Engelbert is looking after us! Where else would you find a job that suits you so well!" 

Carsta gave him a condescending look and got up from the bench. With his long black hair, his face carved like stone with sharp features, and his body that just radiated strength and hidden danger, he stood out everywhere. It was strange that he never took slaves or serfs that would lie down at his command without protest. Especially as he was almost half a head taller than most of the inhabitants of his master's estate. Some women made advances to him, but to no avail. Young Paul, of slender build and with a delicate face marred by an old wound, looked reproachfully at Carsta; his respect for Engelbert was definite and unshakeable; after all, the master had freed him from slavery so that he could be his servant. He was still very inept at fighting but eager to learn. His life was an open book; Carsta's a closed and thrice-locked document.

One day he appeared from an unknown place and answered no one's questions about who and what he was. Only to his master Engelbert did he offer himself as a head hunter, and he accepted him at first sight. Engelbert asked him nothing. For real, dangerous warriors were always in short supply in this outpost amidst a pagan and natural wilderness. He did not go to church but never prayed to any idols or foreign gods, so everyone was at peace with that. As a hunter, he has outdone everyone.

"Enough nonsense, Carsta, it is what it is, and we will not change it. We'd better get ready for today's hunt, which could mean a great victory for the one and only church of our Saviour."

"And that's supposed to be?" Paul asked curiously.

"Borut!" Silence entered the room of the thatched hut. Borut was the legendary sorcerer, the rebellious priest of the pagan village of Jeleni, of which only charcoal remains today. He was said to be able to summon fire and rain, drive away storms, increase the fruit and other harvests, to heal what no one else could.

The better-informed villagers quietly discussed the fact that he always wanted wives to be buried next to the corpse of their husbands when they died. Some also wondered why he always demanded two prisoners from the spoils of war, one man and one woman, and sometimes a child, who were never seen again; others preferred to keep quiet about it - it was a dark and dangerous matter.

Just as they kept silent about the strange demand that the villagers bring him roosters, not chickens, but only adult males. They, too, always disappeared soon, but where to, no one dared to ask Borut. Not even Chief of Jeleni - if he wanted to live long.

Ludwig remembered it all well, from the time when he was a pagan child in Jeleni named Tomislav. Then Borut, as he was an orphan without parents, had taken him in to raise him as his successor. Even then, his cheeks were already furrowed, his figure stooped but surprisingly strong. He remembered the night when Borut had taken the two slaves and the child away, and a terrifying calm had reigned over the whole camp; on such nights, no one dared to go near their humble hut, however badly he might have been hurt.

Borut must have had an alliance with the devil; he was so dangerous. It was no accident that after the massacre and burning of Jeleni, which Borut and his wife had escaped, all the churches and open-air crosses burned to the ground; only those in the forts and towns were safe - Borut was said to have mastered fire from near and far. Ludwig was sure that even Engelbert was afraid of him too, and the reward for this head will be rich enough. But a sadness reigned him, he will kill his adopted father, his youth, his clan. Ludwig started to pray in his head, fervently. Slowly it helped.

"Will of God in the heavens was, that the Jeleni were burnt and that the priest Elfrid took me under his protection at that time." Ludwig thanked God.

“Elfrid drove the evil spirits out of me and even taught me to read and write so that my master had a particular regard for me. The good father even taught me the basics of rhetoric, medicine, and geometry before leaving this world for a better one.”  Now, he had to give courage to his soldiers.

"Yes, Borut. A reliable spy has found out where this pagan priest, this magician of God-cursed idols, is hiding and where he is surely performing his terrible rites. Once and for all, we will kill the bastard to whom, even today, our serfs and slaves go for advice and help. Gone will be the high priest of the heathens, of whom they say that he is above the only God, that he can do more than our ordained priests; that he is above Jesus, who came into this world to save us from our sins."

"I don't care," said Carsta, cuttingly, "as long as the catch is good. I hope he has made his fortune, for the pay is poor here."

"But," Paul almost stammered, "if we're going to fight the devil, shouldn't we take some spiritual help with us?" He certainly meant Father Hedwig. But Ludwig had to admit that Father Hedwig, though ordained, was a cowardly man. To take him along was out of the question, for he would have expelled the contents of his bowels at the first noise and fled in a cowardly manner when any animal appeared.

"The good father cannot be burdened with worldly things, especially if he is not physically prepared for them." he lied to Paul to reassure him. He didn't tell him what amused him most was that the name Hedwig meant warrior.

"A warrior, really?" he thought. "He looks on us all as devil heathens, speaks in the language of the Salzburg because he came from there, raises his nose during the service of God, and secretly sleeps with any slave who dares not say no to him; if she does, he runs away from her like a hare. And his flattery of Master Engelbert, his family, and those few Bavarians, Franks, and Saxons whom their commanders left behind, mostly because they were of no use."

 He dismissed these petty thoughts from his mind and continued,

"This is an occasion that will not be repeated, remember. Our spy stumbled upon his place by accident, and, according to him, it is so hidden that no one would have found it on purpose. The good thing is that we have nothing to fear. He lives with his wife; they have no children and, after the destruction of the Jeleni, no more armed escorts. He may have dogs or a pupil, but that is all we have to fear."

"But is not this the priest of the pagans who have burned all the churches around and even the one in Bischofshofen; how shall we fight such a demonic adversary without a holy support?" Paul insisted.

"By attacking him in the evening, when he won't have time to prepare some infernal snare, because he will be tired and with the dinner and the rituals," Ludwig explained. "I'll tell you the rest on the way. Let's go!"

 

 

II.

The three of them went to the stables, cleaned and fed the horses further, and inspected the horse tack before use. 

The horses were quickly equipped and ready, and, led by their halters, they walked out of the settlement in front of a barrier of high, sharpened logs. They were harnessed and set off northwards, where the spy had directed them. The path was untrodden, and they had to take care when riding to avoid hurting their horses' legs. Here and there, they saw an isolated farm here and there, mostly poor thatched huts and rarely any real houses. In between, there were often ruins of homes that had been burnt down as their inhabitants refused to obey the one and only God or even fought against Him.

Believing that Perun, Veles, and Mokosh were standing by their side, they almost destroyed the principality of Karanthania a few years ago. And what the rebels did not destroy was conquered by the Franks and Bavarians, whom the prince called to his aid. So naturally, they took everything they could get their hands on, from the land to the captured pagans, most of whom quickly ended their lives in the military camp.

Neither the journey nor the environment was pleasant. On the way to Borut, they had to crowd along a path between several mountains.

"On the left is the mountain with the deity of light, and on the right is the mountain of his opponent, the king of darkness. The space between them is separated by a river and trees, which keep the two from fighting." Borut's words began to echo in his head from when he was still his chosen successor. And for the devil's sake, Paul saw a cave again.

 "Hey, look at that hollow in the middle of the hill, there must be something hidden there, maybe a treasure; let's go and have a look!" the young man exclaimed, full of enthusiasm.

"Stop it with your caves, holes, and caverns; they're just snakes, goblins, and wild men and stuff there," growled Carsta. Paul fell silent, and they rode on in silence to a sort of a junction between this path and a similar narrow strip of land, equally unsuitable for riding.

"The monster Vedomec is sleeping at the crossroads, careful that we won't wake him," Paul whispered. Ludwig knew the answer from Borut:

"The Vedomec sleeps at the crossroads, but only when the crossroads are not in the shape of a cross, that is have to be like the letter Y." He was silent, however, on Borut's additional explanation:

"There is also his daughter, Vedomka, which is something quite different, more powerful and unbelievably eviler. Vedomec mainly destroys people's dreams, but Vedomka, devoted to Mokosh, destroys men." And here Borut fell silent and did not want to go on - because he was too young, he explained, even though he already knew what her image looked like. 

Paul, with his almost childlike face amidst his long blond hair, asked him admiringly, "You are amazing, Ludwig; tell us more about this place where we are"

"There is the Great Mountain on the left and the Little Mountain on the right, both considered sacred. The pagans used to go to the Great Mountain to pray because they thought it was crystalline and full of water that could cause torrents. Most importantly, they buried their dead in the spires and hollows of both mountains so that you won't get spooked the next time you explore them. Here, it is said, you could summon Perun, a thunder god, and protector of water and sky. His statue mostly has a flash in its hand. The same applies to Veles, who protects herds, be they horses or sheep. He is as ugly as the night and appears in the form of a snake, dragon, or wolf. His main job is to guide the underworld and shepherd souls. The worst one is Mokosh....but about that some other time. Although Perun is the supreme God, everyone is more afraid of Veles and Mokosh."

He did not want to explain to the innocent young man about the goddess with the beautiful head, long arms, lush breasts, and inviting crotch. Especially not that she is the ruler of sexual relations and women's periods and moon, the protector of women in general and mothers and virgins in particular, and that she also guards the entrance to the underworld and walks freely in the world. And only high priests like Borut knew other horrors connected with her. 

"Let's go on foot," he ordered. "This path is unsuitable for riding, and the branches may hurt us." So they continued their journey slowly, leading the horses to make as little noise as possible.

"Stop!" called Carsta quietly. He raised his hand and pointed to the end of the path, which was in a small clearing. Ludwig involuntarily thought back to his young days - when he had played with Nadovid and Čedomir in such a clearing in Jeleni and secretly watched Mabilka peeing. But these images were overwhelmed by memories of the massacre of the village. Of Nadovid with two arrows in his chest, of Čedomir coughing blood and holding his intestines, crawling out of his cut stomach. And of Mabilka being dragged by the soldiers into the woods, all that could be heard was her sobbing, which ended with her short scream. He shook his head to rid himself of these unbelievers' memories and approached the clearing. A tall wooden idol stood there, and he immediately realized it was Perun. But no one was near the idol, and no sacrifice lay in front of it.

"The sun has not yet set enough for the sacrifice," he whispered. "We must find the way from where Borut comes here." 

Carsta, who inspected the countryside better than a hunting dog, silently pointed out to him with his hand the faint traces where someone regularly walked. They tied their horses to branches and set off on foot to follow the trail. About five hundred paces further on, they saw smoke.

"Draw swords!" Ludwig commanded, and with blades drawn, they stumbled to the smoking hut. There was no one in front of the hut except a wooden statue a little further on, which Ludwig knew to represent Veles. In front of him lay a black, slaughtered rooster, still oozing blood.

 "Paul, you stay here for the guard. If anyone approaches, warn us immediately, do you understand?"

"Understood," Paul replied distractedly, already starting to look around.

"Carsta, let's go; God's work is waiting for us!" he urged his roommate, and with the sword in hand, he started to march towards the hut. He kicked the door and entered it. 

Herbs were hanging all around, except in the middle of the hut, where there was a table with a bench and three bowls, and to the right of the shed, where an older woman was bent over cooking something. She turned to them, and he realized it was Borut's wife, Jarinka. She looked at him,

"Well, it had to come to this, what Borut saw in the fire, that it is our inevitable fate. His disciple has come to kill him. How do you feel, you traitor to our people and their murderer? How does your new God, who is so powerful that he was easily nailed to the cross, make you feel?"

"Be silent, witch, lest I cut your throat!" threatened Carsta.

"Ah, and your friend, so beautiful and so strong, true honey for the female bees, and yet he touches not a single one. Perhaps because his mind is always on his fair-haired young companion, with whom he is innocently skinny-dipping, while he secretly looks at him lustfully? What do you like most about him? His buttocks? Maybe it's mostly that you want to suck his -" Carsta stabbed Jarinka fiercely in the chest, and when she fell to the floor, he continued to pound her until she was almost dismembered.

"Don't you say a word to me about this and especially not to Paul!" he snapped at Ludwig, who just watched the whole thing and didn't dare interfere. Carsta killed all the animals in the hut and picked up three roosters.

"We'll take these with us, at least we'll have something to eat," he said. Ludwig was not convinced

"A black cockerel is a bad omen and brings a great misfortune." He tried to explain.

"Hungry warriors bring even worse misfortune," Carsta growled and continued cleaning the roosters.

"Well, so be it, just no burning, the fire and smoke would have alerted the cunning Borut, and he will never be found again."

"The main thing is that the old hag won't be buried and will be devoured by wild animals, you carrion of the devil!" Carsta was still furious. The allusion to Paul was completely tearing him apart. Ludwig waited until he cleaned all three cockerels, knowing that this work would calm him down. 

"Carsta take those birds, and let's move on, our target is Borut, not his wife, and maybe a pupil he has acquired. He will have to sacrifice to his infernal gods on this day, which will have an empty, black moon so that he won't be home, at least not for a while. We must follow him on."

They left the hut. And the first thing they noticed was. that Paul was nowhere to be found.

"Where the hell did he go? Did he go to relieve himself or what?" worried Ludwig out loud.

Carsta rounded the hut and said, "There's a well-trodden path diagonally up here. But I think it's Borut's path because, on the other side, there are traces of a single man who went from the hut to the mountain near there." Carsta sounded worried but not too concerned. "You can see the entrance to a big cave from that side. I bet Paul was drawn there by his eternal curiosity about these caves and spires." Ludwig agreed with himself.

They sat down on the grass and prepared to wait. Fortunately, it didn't take long before they heard the awkward footsteps of the forest beginner. Paul emerged from the woods, disheveled, sack in hand, and ran towards the two warriors.

"Victory at last! And how hard it was! The cave is full of skeletons sitting against the wall, and I almost ran away because of it! But at the end of the cave, and it must be over a thousand paces long, stands a statue of an idol with a snake in its hand. And in front of him was a sack. I grabbed it, and I tell you that I have never run so fast and so much in my life. Thank God I am safe now."

"And what did you bring in that precious sack?" asked Carsta, half mockingly.

"Surely, there must be jewels or pearl necklaces inside," exclaimed Paul.

"You're just jealous because I'm rich now."

"Well, let's see this wealth, this treasure, open it and show us; I promise we won't take anything from you."

Paul listened to Carsta and began to untie the sack. When he opened it, he cried out wildly. A giant snake slithered out of the bag and bit into his neck. Paul stood up, wriggling and flailing his arms madly, and after a few moments, the snake gave way and disappeared into the grass. Paul continued to squirm, and his companions watched helplessly. Finally, he stopped and immediately fell to the ground. Carsta ran to him, put his head in his arms, and began to comfort him.

"The priest will take you in and heal you, you just have to hold on." "Hold on!"

Paul shouted, "How, I am burning, everything in me is on fire!" Green foam appeared on his lips, and his breathing became deeper and shorter. He cried out a few more times and then fell silent. His head lay in Carsta's embrace, and his whole body was unnaturally contracted but still. And his face became black. Paul was dead.

 

 

 

III.

For the first time since Ludwig had known him, Carsta sobbed. He held the dead Paul in his arms and moaned aloud that he will get well. He cradled him like a baby and sang in his cracked voice songs in an unknown language. The sun had risen, and Ludwig decided:

"Carsta, Paul is dead. All we can do now is to bury him temporarily so that he won't be touched by wild animals and come back for him later so that he can have a Christian funeral." Carsta looked at him silently and didn't move until Ludwig remembered what to say:

"It's all a pagan charm. I've looked through the whole sack, and only the bones of three babies are in it. Borut must have offered this terrible sacrifice to Veles, and from him came the poisonous snake. Because there are no poisonous snakes that big around here, somebody attracted them. And who is the only one capable of attracting such snakes?"

"That's right!" Carsta blurted out. "We have to avenge Paul, and the devil Borut will pay for it! Let's go at once, up that way, and the slant one is his path. Let's go, avengers, my sword and knives crave for his blood!"

They quickly buried Paul and started up the path. They had not gone three hundred paces when a new figure of an idol appeared on the horizon. Ludwig immediately recognized it as Mokosh. In front of her, too, lay a slaughtered black rooster, with a female priestess kneeling beside him. She must have been young.

Carsta rushed forward and jumped on the girl. The woman screamed, but Carsta hit her hard in the face and threw her to the ground. He tore off her robe so that she was naked and shouted,

"Now look, I'm going to show you who the real man is, and this heathen is just the right one for it." He roughly put her legs apart and threw himself on top of her with his trousers down. The girl just lay there looking up into the air. Then suddenly, she raised her hand, and Carsta groaned. And he lay on her like a stone.

Ludwig, who had been thinking about whether or not to follow Carsta on the girl, hurried over to him. He turned him over, and there, right where the heart was, was a sharp, narrow knife stuck in the body. Carsta was dead, and he had been killed by this innocent-looking girl staring at him in silence.

"You heathen, what right have you to kill Christians, you murderess!" 

"Mokosh gives me strength, Mokosh gives me life, Mokosh will take me to the underworld," she replied calmly.

"She will also give you what is yours, don't be afraid for it, you a traitor and convert. We will see if your God can protect you from her!" And she began to mutter the words of the evil charms, which Borut still vaguely remembered. This, and her mocking look, put him into a mental fog, and he feared that she would charm him. Finally, he just had to swing his sword and slit her throat.

He dragged Carsta away from the idol and the girl and quickly shallowly buried him.

 

IV.

Ludwig knew that if he could only show two women's bodies, at the cost of Paul's and Carsta's lives, Master Engelbert would punish him. He could only be saved if he would catch the High Priest, who was being secretly worshipped by the whole fortress, except the Franks and the Bavarians.

Only Borut's head will count as a success with Engelbert, regardless of the deaths of the other warriors. He looked around feverishly and saw a beaten track leading leisurely downwards towards Perun's idol. The sun was setting in the west, which meant the time for sacrifice was approaching. He set off down this slanting path, but something he didn't quite understand was disturbing him. He thought, all these paths were diagonal, as if they were a triangle, as he approached the statue of Perun after about three hundred and fifty steps.

Only this time, the idol was not alone. Kneeling in front of him was the now bald but still recognizable Borut. He, too, was offering to his infernal God the cock that lay slaughtered before him. 

He approached quietly and then fell on him. Borut was cut down without resistance; after that, he turned him around and put his sword to his throat.

"So, you have finally come, my forgetful disciple, to slay your teacher and priest in honor of your crucified God, just as I saw in the fire. Thou hast had much to hang around today. Have you forgotten that in one day, you have visited the heavenly deity, the female deity, and the deity of the earth? It is a beautiful but dangerous path, especially if you forget what it means, you, my forgetful apostate"

"What are you talking about, you foolish old man? Your times are over, and you are still babbling. And what is this constant repetition about forgetfulness?"

"You have forgotten that the most fruitful sacrifices occur between several gods at once. Is it no longer clear to you, that you strode between the gods of the sun, the earth, and the underworld in a triangle? First, you sacrificed a priestess to Veles, a virgin to Mokosh, and now you will sacrifice a head priest to Perun. The black cock is not thy food, it is thy fate, and Mokosh, whom you hast offended the most, hath pronounced judgment and punishment on thee, O my forgetful disciple, and I shall be a witness to it." 

Ludwig turned pale. Only now did he remember that sacrifices in the gods' triangle can bring immense wealth or a terrible penalty. And, in retrospect, that was precisely what he had done. From Perun to Veles, from Veles to Mokosh, and from Mokosh …back to Perun - he had unwittingly performed the ritual of the threefold sacrifice in the triangle of the gods, about which only a hushed conversation was spoken. Otherwise, there was a terrifying silence and silence about it; no one wanted to be the next victim.

"Mokosh has given you a judgment and a punishment, she has, that one amuses me greatly, because she has given you something you won't want, but you will have to want," Borut continued.

"And you, my forgetful disciple, cannot escape her, no matter where you go." Borut looked at him calmly as if Ludwig were a piece of rotten meat. 

Ludwig decided to stop thinking about pagans, rituals, and spells; he thought instead of Engelbert's prize and furiously chopped at Borut's head. Borut didn't even groan at this, just stared mockingly in his face. It took him three blows with the blade to behead him.

"Come for me if you dare!" he shouted to the pagan gods.

"My God is stronger than all of you, idols!!. He wrapped the head, which, even in death, was as laughing at him, into the cut part of the robe and went to look for the horses and the two deceased.

Here, finished. When he had found them, he saddled one of the horses and led the other two, with the bodies of the two fellow soldiers, along with him.

After a long ride through the unnatural silence in the woods and meadows, he arrived at the fort in the middle of the night. No one was waiting for him, for all were asleep except the guards. So, he, with Borut's head in the improvised bag, went to the room assigned to him. Ludwig lay down on the bed with a sigh of relief and threw Borut's head carelessly so that it was lying under the bench. He sank into a dream. 

Something woke Ludwig, something distressing, frightening. He heard panicked shouts and smelled fire. Fort was under attack and nobody was defending it! He must help! He started to rise, but could not. What was wrong?

Ludwig looked towards the fire, which was burning steadily, and saw a naked woman in front of him. She had matted red hair, a face that showed the lines of forest life, long and unattractive breasts that drooped, a figure that bore the marks of wild hunts and childbirth, and bony, marked hands and feet on which long, sharp nails were constantly moving in and out.

"Vedomka" he whispered wearily. Her very appearance paralyzed him.

 "We came, exactly as you invited us. My family and friends are now having fun with your people and gods watch approvingly. There will be a lot of slaves, meat, and human children adopted by my kin, soon.

Of course, I am what Mokosh sends you personally, and I am her judgment and punishment, my love. Mine, for you, are now and shall remain mine alone." She talked in a guttural voice that sounded like it came from another world. Now he understood why Borut had refused to tell him about her; for Vedomec only destroys people's dreams, but Vedomka destroys people in the most terrible way. A personal one.

She tore the poor sheet off him; he lay naked under it and she laid down on him. She deftly raised him, took him in, and began to move in a strange rhythm over him. But, with every movement, his life force was draining and ebbing away. He knew he would not last much longer.

He did not defend himself; he only grew emptier and more helpless as she moved above him and he within her. He was so weak that he was barely conscious. He knew that soon it would all end. That soon, it will be the end of him.

The cries were dying and the fort was burning.

And the head under the bench was laughing roaringly.

THE END


2023 Borut Slokan

Bio: In his own words; "I am a retiree in Slovenia. Glad to be alive."

E-mail: Borut Slokan