The Strigoi

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
10th century Valahia (Romania).

Codrin is member of a secret cult called "Calusari" who are preparing for a protection ritual they must perform during the Pentecost celebration. But the villagers are concerned about the Boyar's guest, a young prince from Transylvania, and his relationship with the Boyar's daughter, Savina.


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* Strigoi - the vampire in Romanian mythology; they can be either living dead or an evil person with magical abilities.

* The Calusari - in Romanian folklore, they were the members of a secret society who practiced a ritual acrobatic dance of shamanic nature, used in healing and exorcism rituals. The dance was known give the onlooker the impression that the dancers are flying in the air, symbolizing the galloping of a horse and the dancing of spirits/fairies. Because of the heavy pagan elements of the tradition, their rituals were eventually banned during the Middle Ages, but the dance is still preserved today, and it is our most spectacular traditional dance.

Submitted: August 07, 2015

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Submitted: August 07, 2015

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The Strigoi

 

On the fiftieth day after the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, when the Holy Spirit descends with blessing upon the faithful and when the Sun marks the beginning of summer, seven men were gathered in the graveyard behind the church, at the rim of the village throned by the Carpathian mountains.

It was past noon and the shadow of the wooden cross atop the church roof was cast on the heath, darkening the grass inside the semicircle where the group stood. All of the seven men were dressed in white attire embroidered with red symbols upon the chest, on the sleeves and on the skirts of their long tunics girdled with wide black belts. Seven men bound as brothers by ritual laws - the C?lu?ari. They leaned solemnly upon the twisted wooden staffs in their hands and, as each of them stepped forward to tell his dream from the night before, the man in the middle of the semicircle interpreted their meanings. He was the leader of the brotherhood, the V?taf.

When all of them had spoken but one, the man called:

“My C?lu?ari brothers, the dreams of us all were bestowed by the Lord with purpose. But, as you know, there is one dream that is of greatest significance on this holy day: the dream of the Mute. Codrin, come forward!”

This man invoked stepped before the group, followed by the keen glances of the other C?lu?ari. He was younger than the rest, agile and vigorous. He was wearing a fringed black mantle on one shoulder and from his belt hung leather pouches, strange figures and fittings whose meaning was forbidden to anyone outside the brotherhood.

“Codrin,” the leader went on, “you were chosen to be the Mute. During our sacred celebration this evening, you shall have the honour to become the will and earthly presence of our Lord, to bear the visage of the hallowed Horse. It is now your turn to tell us: what has God revealed to you in sleep?”

The young man spoke, his dark eyes grave and solemn:

“Great V?taf, I dreamed that I was made the shepherd of our Boyar's flock. Many fine and healthy sheep he had, but one was fairer and meeker than the rest and she walked by me wherever I went. But out of a sudden, the sun disappeared and the sky turned dark and a heavy rain with hail began to fall. The sheep scattered all about. I tried to gather the flock, but when I saw the fair sheep springing towards the brink of the precipice, I forgot about the other animals and began to chase her. But as I ran, I slipped and fell in a dark and mucky lake; I kept calling out to the sheep, but it kept running! And a wolf stood on the other side of the water...”

As he listened with arms crossed, the V?taf rubbed his long tawny beard in thought:

“The Wolf symbolizes darkness and barrenness. The Horse - the C?lu?, our lord protector - is his enemy: he is the light, the fruitful summer that must begin today and chase this darkness away, to bring joy and fertility to our crops and kin. Your dream means that the spirits are indeed unsettled tonight. But that wolf... did you follow it? Did you fight it? Did you redeem the sheep?”

Codrin hesitated:

“I tried... I wanted to, but the depths of the lake kept pulling me under in shifting mud. I was desperate to get out of the water. I did not chase the wolf away, I did not protect the sheep because I feared for my own life. I felt that I was drowning and I woke up... I am sorry, V?taf, I was weak! Forgive me...”

The C?lu?ari began to whisper with one another, shaking their heads. Codrin did not look around at them, glancing only at the V?taf in unease. The man frowned but nodded:

“Evil comes under many forms, but fear not - the forces of Nature and Light are strong. The C?lu? stands by our side. Go now, C?lu?ari, it is time go down in the village. Go and prepare yourselves for the ceremony!”

Then he placed a hand on Codrin's shoulder and led him away amid the graves to speak to him alone, and said:

“Since the beginning of time, before the word of God had reached our lands in Valahia, our ancestors chose a select group of men initiated in the sacred rites of the Sun God to protect them from Evil. These men were the C?lu?ari. When Saint Andrei came to Valahia to preach, their eyes were opened: they were revealed that the god they had worshipped - their patron, the creator of life, of the universe and of the Sun - was in fact none other than the One God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, only they hadn't known His real names. Saint Andrei was crucified for his faith in the Lord, but our people began to worship him as the saint who brought the holy word into our lands. The secrets of the C?lu?ari have been passed from father to son and they are now in our grasp – even today we fight against Evil in the name of God. And today we shall welcome summer with our ancient rite, empowered by the C?lu? - the hallowed Horse, the spirit of light.”

“And it is an honour for me to have been chosen Mute, believe me!” the young man exclaimed with fervour. “One whole year I trained for this moment, I have cleansed myself with prayer, fasting and chastity. I thought I was ready, but... in my dream I did not have the power to chase the wolf away...”

“Do not judge yourself too harshly, lad. You must know that you received this crucial role because of your outstanding skills. Trust in your abilities, believe in the hallowed Horse and you will know what must be done.”

Codrin took out his wooden staff, sculpted and twisted in the shape of a horse's head. He knelt with both hands on the staff and spoke:

“Great V?taf, high priest of the C?lu?, before you I reinforce the solemn vow I made at my initiation ceremony: I swear on the spirits of my ancestors, on my home and cattle, to serve the Lord today with worthiness so that the hallowed Horse take hold of my physical form during the dance and guide my sword against Evil! So help me God!”

 

When the sun was beginning to descend in the sky, people from nine villages were gathered on the meadow, dressed for holiday in their best clothes as was fit for such a joyous and holy occasion, dancing the hora in circles to the music. The gates and fences of the houses nearby were decorated with branches of linden, walnut, elder and blackberry and field flowers. Monks had given charity to the poor and the priests had blessed the meals, so that everyone had food in plenty. And on the high seat, from where he could watch over his people, sat the Boyar. He had his guests of honour and his two sons at one side, and on the other sat his lady and their daughter Savina. The girl, about seventeen of age, was wearing a wreath of spring flowers on her head, peony and white narcissus, and her hair was braided like grain ears in two strands, only her braids were not golden like the crops but dark brown. Beautiful and delicate she was, like the rare mountain flower that grew hidden on Carpathian crests. And yet, the villagers would often stop from their dances to look at her worriedly. But no other party-goer caught the mob's attentions like the Boyar's guest who sat silent and stately at his side: this young man with gemstone-green eyes, with rich princely garments that showed high status, a travel enthusiast whom the Boyar was accommodating during his visit through the realms of Valahia. He was the youngest son of a Cneaz from Transylvania.

When he saw the Boyar's daughter resting in her chair with only some servants to watch over her, Codrin stopped by, uncovering his head to bow before her in greeting.

“My lady Savina,” he said. “May I speak with you?”

She looked at him with wide sunny chestnut eyes that would always make his heart rush.

“Codrin. Very well, though I assume you must hurry, for the ceremony is about to begin. Come, walk me to the well. Draw me some water up so I can wash before the dance and we can talk in the meantime.”

She threw a peek towards her parents and their guests. The foreign man turned his head slightly, but did not glance at them. So the girl signalled her servants and stood up. She took Codrin's arm as they walked together on the road leading uphill to where a stone water well stood half-hidden in a cluster of birch trees. Her long white dress with vividly embroidered skirt overlapped rustled subtly when she trod.

“I wondered when you would come to join our party,” she commented. “While you wandered through woods and graveyards, the rest of us feasted and made merry. It is almost unfair that you were forbidden to take part, it has been a lovely banquet. Perhaps the last one for me in the village.” The young man bit his lip but she kept smiling distracted. “I'd have offered you a cup of wine, but I know you and your C?lu?ari are still in fasting today. In fact, you shouldn't even be speaking to me – I thought a woman's company while in fasting brings a man bad luck!”

“A few words with a maiden shall do me no harm – a maiden that I am sworn to protect.”

She let her eyes down a moment at his answer, but smiled in the corner of her peach-coloured lips.

“Well then, what is it that you wanted to tell me?”

“My lady Savina...” he began. “Do you remember when you got lost in the mountains and fell in the Devil's Vale? The Boyar and Lady Lixandra were fraught with worry. Three days the Boyar's men searched for you, but I was the one who found you on the third night down in the ravine. You were scared, so I sang to you and played tunes from my flute of elder. You told me I wish I had wings to fly out of here. Or, rather, I wish I could fly without wings, like you fly in your dances with the C?lu?ari. So I asked you to cling to me and we climbed out of the ravine together! Do you remember?”

“Of course I remember!” she exclaimed. “I will never forget it. But that happened four years ago, I was only a child back then. Now I don't run on the hills with peasant lads anymore.”

Codrin stared down uncomfortably.

“I was afraid to talk to you about this because it's not my place to say it. But I'll say it nonetheless: you must be careful!” He turned to look at her grave and pleading: “The Boyar's guests, the son of the Transylvanian Cneaz.... There is something wrong with him, I feel it.”

“Ah, again this nonsense!” she frowned. “I've seen how you commoners look at him, how you look at me when I'm with him! If I took to heart every knavish glance I received these three days of feasting, I would go mad. And I'm sick of it!”

“My lady, the villagers talk... If you could hear what they say...”

“Foolish lowbrow superstitions! Since when do I care what simple-minded peasants say?”

“You used to care, that's exactly it! Everyone loved you like they love your mother, the Lady Lixandra, for her kindness and gentle heart. Since you were a child, young as your were, you stood at your parents' side listening to our worries and cares and you pleaded for us to the Boyar. And he yielded to your requests because you were the sweetest child. But now you've changed, everyone notices... You've changed since he came here.”

They had arrived at the well. Before stepping in the shade of the birches, Savina threw a subtle glance towards the banquet table, towards the foreign man at the Boyar's side, Codrin knew. She then leaned on the pillar of the well, lifting a brow in disdain:

“Things change so we must change - I shall marry the son of the Cneaz with my parents' blessing, this is all the village must care about. The rest is none of your business, not yours and not that of the other commoners. If you had not saved my life years ago and if you were not a C?lu?ar, I would forbid you to speak about these matters. And I would not be here alone with you. Now draw water!” she commanded.

She sat down on the brink of the well, watching Codrin's moves as he turned the wheel. A cool air arose from the shaft of the well and in the darkness of the pit, water rippled stifled. Savina sighed with a sort of pity:

“Codrin. You confessed your love for me a long time ago, but this does not give you the right to judge. He shall come with royal suite to ask my hand from my father and take me to his castle in Transylvania. He is a prince - you are a peasant who dances! In what world would I want you instead?”

The bucket hit the walls of the well as Codrin's hands trembled unnoticeable, making a metallic sound that echoed in the depths. She had changed indeed, so much that it was painful to listen to her cruel words. Where was the girl to whom he had opened his heart?

“Mock me all you want,” he answered. “I'm not a fool, I've always known I'm no match for you. I confessed my love, but I never expected anything in return. But now, this is not about my feelings for you – it is because I worry for your safety. Lady Lixandra knows and agrees with us, she is worried too, she talked to the V?taf about it.” He poured water on the girl's hands and she splashed her arms, lifting her dress above the ankles to clean a mud stain. “Everyone knows that the son of the Cneaz is a foundling. He comes from the North where folk are still pagan. I never saw him crossing himself in church, nor uttering any prayer, though his family is Christian. Listen, my lady... some farmers said they saw him once standing on Hawk's Crag in the storm, holding an idol in his hands, with eyes and mouth wide open, clawing himself and uttering rhymes in a strange tongue! They say that their cattle got ill and died and the crops withered and were felled to the ground where he walked! They say he is a... strigoi.

Codrin's words echoed in the well as he bent slightly above the edge to lower the bucket. Strigoi. Savina stared inside the well and made no answer, no other protest, so he felt encouraged to go on:

“Please... will you trust me one more time like you trusted me when I climbed the ravine with you?” He knelt before her. “May I?” he dipped a finger in the pouch at his belt, drawing circular symbol with red dye on her foot above the ankle. “The Wheel of the Sun and the Holy Cross. It shall keep you safe and show you the right way. Our dance shall protect you, so you must stay close to us during the rite. I don't know if he truly is evil like the peasants say, but he wants something, your father's lands, his wealth... or he simply wants you at his whim, to drive you into sin...”

But he could not finish, for Savina raised her hand and slapped him.

“How dare you?” she shrieked angered. Codrin let his head down and was just beginning to apologise, when he felt her foot touching his leg. He heard her voice, strange and unexpected: “But what is sweeter than sin? Do you not envy us, the sinners?”

The young man could not believe his ears and glanced up at her with eyes widened.

“He did lead you astray, then...”

She stood up. She did not look flustered at all, instead she laughed. Yet it was not a joyful laughter but a coarse one, and though her voice was sweet in tune, it had a metallic tinge like the sound of blades slashing:

“What? Are you jealous that I did not give myself to you that night in the ravine? Or in the orchard when you said you loved me? You say you have been purified in prayer, and yet I see it in your eyes, I feel it.” She came to him and took him by the waist, touching the skirt of his tunic. “You say you must be chaste, and yet... you would break the laws of your fraternity to sin with me...”

No, it was not her speaking, it was not Savina that he knew! He tore free from her shameless embrace. People approached to announce that it was time for the C?lu?ari to gather, so the young man stepped away in rush, not able to look at her anymore. Savina followed him with her dark eyes undisturbed.

Down on the meadow, the whole village was united before the Boyar and the priests who declared the beginning of the ceremony. The V?taf came to Codrin and whispered fleetingly:

“Remember, you are the Mute: once the rite begins, no matter what you see you must utter no word, make no sound. If you speak, you die!”

And then the man raised a banner adorned with herbs and kernels of garlic and the C?lu?ari assembled beneath it. He looked at the sun and shouted a chant – not a song, but a beckon, an invocation:

Wheel in the sky,

Darkness is nigh,

Dance of the shades

In haze-ridden glades.”

He looked at the dark that was gathering from the West and yelled a call to battle, and the C?lu?ari answered him in one voice: H?l?i ?a! And they began to spring and stamp their feet in a frenetic dance.

Codrin, the Mute, emerged in the middle of the group: he was wearing a mask sculpted in bone, the skull of the Horse, the hallowed patron of the C?lu?ari. He was chewing on leaves of wormwood, the sacred plant that made him one with the C?lu? and guarded him from evil spirits.

The dancers whirled around him in the sprightly tunes of the music. Then they danced on the grass, their hands propped on the earth and their feet flying in the air. But Codrin did not dance like the rest – he drove his wooden staff in the earth and drew a circle around them. The C?lu?ari were to dance in this circle where they could not be touched by anything unclean, but the Mute could step outside and do whatever he wanted, whatever the vision told him to do. He tasted the bitter aroma of wormwood, that began to seem to him sweet and overwhelming, and he felt light as a feather, light as a gust of wind. So he ran in the circle and began to leap between them, springing with hands on the ground and flipping in the air, and came back to the ground only to jump again! The audience gaped mesmerized.

The V?taf called out:

Come hither ye high,

From heavens down fly,

Till darkness is gone

and summer is come!”

The dancers now rolled on the ground and passed by one another in harmonious round-offs, like white and red wheels. But Codrin took run and, in their middle, he propelled himself in the sculpted staff he held in hands - up in the air he leapt and revolved, high above the heads of the crowd! H?l?i ?a! came the ritual shout. And again Codrin flew in mid-air - twice, thrice! Twisting and whirling on wings of wind. Walking across the heavens in mystical gallop, the power that the hallowed Horse gave him. And his mind was reeling, dizzy from the wormwood, just like his body was spinning graciously in that acrobatic dance.

“Pray,” people stretched out their hands to him, “bless my family,” they said, knowing his power. So he descended in the crowd outside the circle and the people touched him, somehow in fear and reverence, beseeching to be cleansed and made fertile. But as he walked among them, a hand gripped his shirt, gentle but desperate. He heard in his ear:

“Pray, forgive me. You were right...”

He turned and saw Savina at his back; her hair was covered with a veil and her wide eyes seemed on the verge of tears as she was gazing at him trying to take hold of his hand.

“We must leave... there's no other way...”

She whispered, hiding her face in the veil. Puzzled, Codrin wrested himself out of the arms of the crowd to let Savina lead him away. He ran with her among the houses, following her as she hid behind walls and fences so that no one would see her but him. She murmured, glancing around in terror as if afraid that someone or something was following them:

“...mustn't find us...”

But as Codrin turned to look back, her hand slipped from his and she was gone! Panicked, he wanted to call her name, but he was forbidden to speak. So he jumped over the fence of a house, climbing on its tall gate and from there in the walnut tree. From its branches he sprang on to the building, climbing on the ledges with ease and propelling himself up on the high roof – and there he stood above the entire village.

The sun was almost gone and night was crawling in. The shade of the mountain was engulfing the church uphill. And there, running towards the sanctuary, was Savina! With heart beating fast, Codrin plunged from the roof. And as he rolled up from the ground in rush, his coal-black hair fell untied, fluttering on his shoulders as he raced to the church. The crowd far behind him followed his acrobatic moves in amazement. But they could not see what he was seeing. He pushed the door open.

“We must go!” Savina cried out, flinging her arms around his neck by the wooden altar. “Take me away in flight like you did that night, play me doinas from your flute to ease my fear and pain.” She touched his masked face, the horse's skull. “If you love me, I'll go anywhere with you. Do you, Codrin? Say it, I need to hear you, to see you say it again...”

“Yes, I love you...” he uttered. And when he did, she took out his mask and threw it on the floor.

But as soon as she did that, Savina collapsed! She began to jerk on the floor and choke and gasp for air!Aghast, Codrin jumped beside her to feel her heartbeat and heard her weak breathing. He had to protect her, to drive the spirits away. But, without the mask, without the vision of the Horse, he could see the spirits no more...

He heard a voice behind him, a laughter or a whisper, not like a human voice but like rocks falling or trees breaking during a storm, and knew that it must have been the voice of the demon. In his left hand he held up the cross at his belt embalmed in holy ointments. He cried out:

Come hither ye high and drive out the wry! Evil crush and shun: begone, Unclean, begone!”

With the sword he scratched a circle around him and Savina and painted it in red dye. He placed the cross on the girl's chest. And then, he took Savina's right hand in his, gently and fondly, and slashed her palm with the blade until blood poured out.

Come hither ye high, all Evil untie! My blood I thee gift – redeem her life swift!”

And saying this, he slit his wrist. But when finished uttering the incantation, the church door was flung open and in the doorstep stood the V?taf and the C?lu?ari. And, behind them, the entire village. They all crossed themselves at the sight.

The V?taf came before Codrin. Codrin had taken off his mask and he had spoken even though it was forbidden; he had broken the vow. So the V?taf took out his sword and said:

“As punishment for thy broken vow, thou must pay with life! I release thee: go now on the other side, chase the demon away and bring back the girl's soul. So help thee God!”

He slashed the air and Codrin laid himself down, as if stricken by the blade.

He lay beside Savina on the floor, gazing at her pale face, her troubled sleep. He laid his bleeding hand upon hers, to give her his blood in exchange for her own blood poisoned by the demon. Although his death was supposed to be a symbolical one, so that he could follow the ill girl through the realm of spirits, Codrin's body felt heavy now. He felt the dizziness of the wormwood, of the blood loss. He saw the C?lu?ari dancing around them and heard the prayers of the V?taf.

Behind them stood the Boyar and Lady Lixandra, terrified, and the son of the Cneaz was by their side. This stranger was there as if he had never left the place, looking worried, looking guiltless. But with his pale brows and argent green eyes he seemed rather a snake, cold and twisted. Guilty or not, the son of the Cneaz was deemed evil by all the peasants. Codrin knew that if anything was to happen to Savina, the crowd would lynch the man, driving a spike in his chest, ripping out the heart from his body and burning it to ashes – as the ritual required for a strigoi.

Now Codrin could see the C?lu?ari no more, only their silhouettes flying around them, red and white blurs. And among the people, he could see shadows, not those of the villagers but other shades that seemed uncanny, like fiends that lurked in attack. He stood up and unsheathed his sword from the hilt and drenched it in holy water. The fiends scattered around him, now crawling to grasp him, now running away, sliding on the stairs that led up. He chased them to the top of the stairs and there he found himself in the church tower, where the great bronze bell hung. It was utterly dark now. Codrin flung his sword, striking at the shadows that engulfed him, casting them over the edge. He pulled at the rope and the heavy bell tolled.

And in the sound of the bell's tune, Codrin saw himself standing in the meadow that had appeared in his dream from the night before; all shadows were gone. And there stood the sheep, the fair sheep from the Boyar's flock that he had lost! It stood on the shore of the dark mucky lake and gazed at him. “Please, come back!” he called to it and stretched out his hand. And she came. She let him take her in his arms, kiss her and bless her.

But as he did that, a roar resounded at his back, and he was knocked down with force by a great beast: the wolf! It gaped its jagged jaws above him and Codrin felt its heavy stifling weight upon him, its demonic strength. He pushed the beast away with all his might. “Begone, Unclean, begone!” he cried out and kicked it aside. He rolled up, with one knee still on the ground, and raised his sword. But the wolf pounced at him again. He felt thrown in the air – not on the ground, not in the lake, but over the edge of the church bell-tower. He grasped the edge with his left hand to hold himself, but the weight was dragging him down. The beast tried to cling to him with its claws, lacerating long slashes legs, but Codrin's sword had thrust it through; the wolf fell. He tried to climb back, but he felt wounded and weary. He had strength to pull himself up, only enough to see the sheep standing there, at safety, looking back at him.

Codrin opened his eyes. He saw Savina's face beside him, as she was lying by his side and their bleeding hands were still touching. His body felt heavy, as if drooping down above a chasm, but he felt calm now. He knew that the sheep was safe and he could hear a clear soothing song filling the air, the shepherd's doina played on his flute of elder. And, as gloom fell on Codrin's vision, he saw Savina opening her eyes.


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