WARNING: This poem contains intense topics likely to disturb some readers. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes severe mental distress, reference to past kidnapping and child abuse, reference to past attempted genocide, current attempted kidnapping, fight, blood and gore, violent death of a villain, poetic justice, communal alteration of facts, drugs and poisons, exhaustion, minor medical details, and other mayhem. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read. However, this is the climax of the thread about the hunters, so skipping it would leave a big gap.
"The Candle Burns"
Victor and Igor strolled
through the market with
Adam toddling between them.
The harvest season brought
more vendors than usual
as people came in from
nearby valleys, along with
the traveling merchants.
Wagons held heaps of
fruits and vegetables,
including some varieties
not grown in the valley.
A furrier had set up shop
with all sorts of hides that
could be made into coats,
hats, or other warm things.
Victor chose black fox for himself,
dark brown beaver for Igor, and
rabbit to make a cap for Adam.
Weavers laid out bolts of
fabric in a rainbow of colors.
Igor spotted a spicemonger
who had come up from
the Mediterranean, so
there went a lot of coin.
A glassworker offered
beads that sparkled in
the September sun, and
larger pieces that could
be made into pendants.
Kálmán introduced them to
Zvonimir, a traveling minstrel
who also sold sheet music and
some simple musical instruments
such as pipes and tambourines.
There were even lengths of
exotic wood, like walking sticks,
but meant for a woodworker
to make into new instruments.
"It's a little early, but he might be
looking for a place to overwinter,"
the priest murmured to Victor.
After looking at the instruments
and buying a few new songs in hope
of finding someone to perform them,
Victor said, "I heard that you're
in need of winter lodging."
"I am indeed," Zvonimir said.
"Sadly, my lack of cash is
proving a challenge."
"Do you give lessons?"
Victor asked. "We would
gladly host you for the winter
in exchange for teaching those
who would like to study music."
"That would be most welcome,"
Zvonimir said. "Will anyone
want to learn, though? I visit
the little villages, but they're
not the most ... sophisticated."
Igor chuckled. "You haven't
come through here recently,
have you?" he asked.
"No, it's been three years,
maybe four," Zvonimir said.
"Things have changed,"
Victor said. "Ask around,
see if anyone wants to take
music lessons from you. We
can discuss details later."
After that, they ate lunch
where someone was selling
meat pastries, along with
fresh fruit from a vendor.
Igor bought Adam a handful
of sweets from a candy cart.
They walked onward as
the sun slowly slipped down
the sky, enjoying the market.
Ruxandra had set out some of
her fine embroidery, handkerchiefs
and scarves and a few other things.
Igor insisted that Victor needed
a proper set of monograms.
A cobbler had come from Zalău,
so both Victor and Igor wanted
new boots -- real ones of leather
with solid soles, not the felt kind
that most of the villagers used.
"And your boy?" the man asked.
Igor shook his head. "No, it's
bad for a child's feet to wear
rigid soles too soon. You should
ask Imre the blacksmith, though --
he needs strong boots for his work,
and his daughter Anca should have
her own since she helps him."
The cobbler thanked them for
the tip and took tracings of
their feet. Like the furrier,
he would make and deliver
items over the next week
or two, then move along
to another village's market.
Next they found a woman
selling thread, string, and
yarn from a wooden rack.
Victor was frowning over
a scant supply of silk thread
when Lóránt the woodcutter
hurried over to them.
"What's wrong?" Igor said,
turning around to face him.
"I don't know, but something
has spooked Clyde," said Lóránt.
"I left him with Dénes for now, but
Clyde keeps spouting 'he's here'
and trying to hide in the corner."
Victor and Igor shared a look.
Clyde didn't get a lot of respect
because he was skittish and strange.
The burn scars didn't help either,
although they had healed well.
Sometimes, though, Clyde
knew things that others did not,
so Victor and Igor tried to pay
attention to what he said.
There had been rumors of
hunters for months, and
several minor conflicts.
Now the whole village
was full of strangers, and
all too good a hunting ground
for those in search of 'monsters' --
or children who might not be missed.
"Thank you, Lóránt, rest assured we'll
get to the bottom of this," Victor promised.
As Victor stretched his legs to cover
more distance, Igor scooped up
Adam and trotted along beside him.
Inside the brewery, they found
Clyde hiding behind the counter.
Igor got down on the floor
and eased closer to him.
"He's here, he's here,"
Clyde whimpered as he
hit himself over the ears.
"Get him out of my head!"
Igor caught his wrists and
gently pulled his hands away.
"Who's here?" he asked.
"Herr Weisskopf," Clyde said.
Victor jerked in shock.
That was not good at all.
They had passed around
a portrait and word to keep
Herr Weisskopf out of the valley,
because he was a very bad man.
He stole children, and hurt them,
and made them do terrible things.
"Thank you for warning us, Clyde,"
said Victor. "We'll make sure
that he can't hurt anyone."
"All right, we knew this might
happen," Igor said. "Lóránt, take
Clyde back to the woods where he'll
be safe. Choose a few other men
to go with you for extra protection."
"This way," Dénes said, opening
a door. "You can sneak out the back."
"What's going on?" Dorottya said
as she came into the brewery. She
gave Igor a hand as he got to his feet.
"Hunters have come to the village,"
Victor said grimly. "Remember when
we talked about the bad men who
try to kidnap unusual children?"
"We made a list of the ones
they might want," Dorottya said.
"Adam because of his scars. Danior
who was born with two teeth. Anca
and Crina since they're smart girls."
"All of the foresters' children,"
Igor added in a dark tone.
The werewolf cubs would be
targets for murder rather than
kidnapping, but there was Toma too,
who was human but nearly feral.
"Răzvan is in the village today,"
Dénes said. "I saw him earlier.
"Merde," said Victor. "Find him
and put him in with the children.
He's too old for the hunters to want,
but they might try to take advantage."
"Where should we hide the children?"
Dorottya asked. "They won't fit here."
"Put them in the schoolhouse," Igor said.
"Pass the word, discreetly, to any merchants
who brought children -- they can put theirs
in the church for a catechism lesson."
"Dénes, go around to the men you know,"
Victor said. "I want the hunters found
and restrained. We'll need to search
for their camp and free any captives."
"Yes, mazil," said Dénes, and
then hurried to do his bidding.
Dorottya gathered her children and
Adam, then headed for the school.
Stepping onto the porch, Victor
took out the silver whistle that
Fridrik had given him after
the incident with the trap.
It was supposed to have
a dog head on one end, but
the thing looked more like a wolf.
Victor took a deep breath and
blew the pattern that meant Danger.
The whistle made no sound that
he could hear, but Fridrik had
assured him all the werewolves
would hear it and come at need.
It shouldn't take long -- the werewolves
would be at the village market along with
everyone else, shopping for supplies.
Victor just hope that the alarm
would reach them in time.
They were in more danger
from the hunters than even
the peculiar children were.
Fortunately Laszlo was not
in the village, his dislike of
crowds an asset for once --
it meant one less person
for Victor to worry about.
It didn't take long for
the first of the werewolves
to arrive, Shandor and Mircea
running to meet Victor.
"You called, we came,"
Shandor said just as
Mircea said, "What
is the danger?"
come," Victor said.
The werewolves snarled.
"Yes, I quite agree with you,"
Victor said. "We need to find
the hunters before they can
hurt anyone. We're looking for
a man with white hair and skin."
"Remember that the hunters take
strange children when they can,"
Igor added. "Tell Ena to take
the cubs into the forest."
"We will tell her," Mircea said.
"She is very good at hiding."
Ena had lost her whole pack
to hunters, and joined this one
made from the remnants of
two other packs. One cub,
Bertolf, was another orphan.
Victor and Igor watched as
the werewolves melted into
the crowd, already searching
for intruders in their territory.
Moving through the market,
Victor and Igor also looked
for signs of the hunters.
Sounds of a scuffle ahead
told them that they were
too late to prevent trouble.
Victor broke into a run,
quickly outpacing Igor.
A baby's shriek whipped
him to even greater speed.
"Make way for the mazil!"
A cap fell away, and
a flash of white hair
ahead helped Victor
home in on the fight.
Soon he found Zsófia
using an iron pot to beat
a slim, ghost-white man
who had ahold of Toma.
The boy had his teeth
in the man's arm, growling
as fiercely as a werewolf.
Victor landed one good punch
to the side of the hunter's head,
breaking up the tangle of bodies.
Other men joined the fray,
giving Zsófia time to scoop up
her son Danior and run away.
Herr Weisskopf was formidable,
though, and nobody could hold him.
Zvonimir swung an ebony branch
hard enough to knock him down,
but Herr Weisskopf got back up.
"He has a pistol!" Imre shouted,
knocking the hunter's arm high.
A spear of light lanced across
Victor's face, dazzling him for
a moment, and Herr Weisskopf
screamed as if splashed by acid.
Suddenly Fridrik rushed past and
sank his teeth in the hunter's throat.
Shandor grabbed his gun arm while
Mircea took the other. Bones crunched.
A moment later, Janika bit into
his soft belly, tearing open
fabric and flesh alike.
Blood spattered over
white hair, white skin,
and Janika's pale fur.
Victor rubbed the spots
from his eyes and saw
that Herr Weisskopf was
most thoroughly dead.
One by one, the werewolves
let go and backed away.
Fridrik gave the man
one last rat-killing shake
before releasing the corpse.
"I saw the foresters change
into wolves!" Július said.
"They just killed a man,"
Nicușor added, staring.
"What does the law say
when the mazil joins in
the fight?" Zolten asked.
"Can he still pass judgment?
Do we need a traveling judge?"
Victor wasn't sure, but he had
better think of an answer, fast.
Then Imre stepped up and said loudly,
"The man came to our village and tried
to kidnap our children. He fled, and then
the mazil's hunting pack killed him. I saw it."
"Yes, that is what happened. I saw it too,"
Dénes echoed, coming up beside him.
Soon the rest of the villagers took up
the refrain, and the questions stopped.
Well, that was one less worry.
Victor looked around the market.
Igor had a white-knuckled grip
on a large silver mirror.
"I remembered what Clyde
told us about Herr Weisskopf
having sensitive eyes," Igor said.
"I guess he was right about that.
Sorry, I didn't mean to get you too."
"I'm fine, I was only dazzled for
a moment," Victor said, waving it off.
Zvonimir was calmly replacing
the undamaged ebony branch
in the barrel of exotic wood.
Victor resolved to buy it and
have it made into something.
The werewolves were trying
to clean their mouths, but
the market square was
dust and stone underfoot.
"Come here," Dénes said
as he pulled sample flasks of
vodka and blackberry liqueur
from the loops of his belt.
"You can wash with these."
None of them liked the flavor,
but at least it got the job done.
Fridrik shifted back to human
and said, "How did you know?"
"You were making a face
like you bit into an apple and
found half a worm," Dénes said.
Katalin grabbed her clothesline
and brought the whole thing over.
"Here, these are dry," she said
to the naked werewolves. "Come
and take whatever will fit you."
They dressed reluctantly,
but none of them complained,
and Janika even thanked her.
Meanwhile Igor had found
a candle somewhere and lit it,
using melted wax to fasten its base
to a stone bench underneath a tree,
where it flickered in the shadows.
"Are you lighting a candle for us?"
Victor said. "I gather it's not for him."
"No," Igor said, shaking his head.
"The candle burns not for us, but for
all those whom we failed to rescue
from prison, who were shot on the way
to prison, who were tortured, who were
kidnapped, who just 'disappeared'.
That's what the candle is for."
Victor shivered. Sometimes,
the things in Igor's past
scared him a little.
Kálmán came up
and asked, "Mazil,
what shall we do with
the earthly remains?"
"I don't want them in
the cemetery," Victor said.
"Take them far into the fields.
What you do or do not say over
them is between you and God."
He knew that he had a right
to order the priest not to perform
any funerary rights over the corpse.
He also knew when to get out of the way.
His job was to look after the castle
and the village, not immortal souls.
Better to leave such things to the priest.
"As you will," Kálmán said with a bow.
Then he began choosing people
to help him remove the body.
When they lifted it, though,
Fridrik snarled, "Poison!"
At once everyone let go of
the body and backed away.
Poking the corpse with a stick
revealed a satchel holding a book.
"Rerum Regularium -- Regular Practices,
a book written by F. Hyacinto Donato,"
Victor explained, leaning over it.
"It smells of poison," Fridrik said,
frowning but not coming closer.
The cover was locked, but
Imre had no trouble prying it
open with an iron crowbar.
Inside, the pages had been
cut away to make room for
a set of tiny drawers and
a larger glass bottle.
Victor read carefully.
"Drugs and poisons."
"Wolfsbane!" Fridrik said.
"Put the whole thing into
an oilcloth sack," Victor said.
"We will examine it later."
"Yes, mazil," Dénes said,
and took charge of it.
There were still other things
to be done, too, but Victor
was astoundingly tired after
only a minute's exertion
in the brief combat.
The blacksmith looked
fresh and alert, though.
"Imre, pick some men and
seek out the hunter's camp,"
said Victor. "Take care, since
there may be more than the one
we just dealt with, but we need
to free any captive victims."
"I will come and help you,"
Fridrik said. "I can sniff out
hunters or hidden children."
"What shall we do with anyone
we find?" Imre asked him.
"Bring them to the castle,"
Victor said. "We'll sort them out."
"Make sure that someone on
your team knows first aid,"
Igor added. "The hunters
aren't kind to the children
that they have kidnapped."
"I'll take Ilona," Imre declared.
"She's as tough and fierce as
a man, but she also knows
some caregiving skills."
Another murmur snagged
Victor's attention and he said,
"As the hunter was slain by
my hunting dogs, I'd best be
able to produce a pack in case
anyone inquires. Are there
some for sale in the market?"
"No need," Dénes said.
"The mazil already has dogs."
"I do?" Victor said, startled.
"I've never heard of them."
"Well, it's no secret that you don't
like to hunt, so it didn't come up,"
Dénes said. "They're all down by
the lake, where the old kennel-keeper
retired. His son Doru tends them now."
"All right, tell Doru that I will come
take a look at the dogs," Victor said.
"What kind of hunting dogs are they?"
"Irish wolfhounds, easy to mistake for
wolves from any distance," Dénes said.
"Please, be gentle with Doru and let him
know you're not going to sell off the dogs.
He's been fretting over that ever since
you arrived, and too scared do more than
hide in hope you wouldn't notice them."
Victor sighed. He was much too tired
to deal with this on top of everything else.
"Dénes, you'll have to handle that for now,"
he said. "I need to lie down and rest
before I try to sort out this mess."
"And put some ice on that hand,"
Dénes said gently, pointing.
Victor looked down and
saw the first two knuckles of
his right hand turning blue.
"Oh, let me see that," Igor said.
His gentle examination made
Victor hiss in pain. "Sore, but
I can't feel any breaks. You
probably just bruised it, so yes,
that's in want of some ice."
A wagon rattled up to them,
and Costin leaned over to say,
"I can drive people up to the castle
if anyone needs to catch a ride."
"Thank you," Victor said. "We
brought out own wagon, but it
can stay at the livery overnight."
It was nearly night already,
long shadows filling the market,
and when had that happened?
Igor turned to Toma, who had
been doing a very good job of
avoiding everyone since he
escaped the hunter's grasp.
"It's time to go home now,"
Igor said. "Get in the wagon."
Toma skittered back a step,
putting himself out of reach.
"Too much?" Igor said, sighing.
"All right, let's see ... if we tie a rope
to the wagon, will you hold onto it
and run with us until you get tired?"
Toma shuffled from one foot to
the other, then stretched out his arms.
"How long of a rope?" Igor guessed,
and when Toma nodded, "As long as
you feel comfortable using right now."
Costin pulled a coil of rope from
under the hay in the wagon, then
let Toma reel off a few loops before
securing the rest of it to the back.
Victor climbed into the wagon,
struggling to find a comfortable spot.
His whole body felt bruised; he must've
taken a few blows in the scuffle.
Igor climbed in after him, then
Dorottya brought Adam to them.
Most of the werewolves had returned
to furry form now that they didn't need
to talk. Janika and Mircea jumped in,
curling around the two men.
Shandor sidled up to Toma,
making sure that he wouldn't
get lost along the way.
"Lie back and relax, Victor,"
said Igor. "Trust people to do
what you've assigned to them.
Try to get some rest. I will
wake you when we get home."
Oh yes, that sounded like
a splendid plan to Victor.
He snuggled into the hay
and did his best to relax as
the wagon began to roll forward.
He could deal with everything ... later.
* * *
This poem is long, so the notes appear separately.