“Sometimes the devil doth assume a pleasing shape.”
An army of white towers rose up against the dark forest. Circled by ravens, crags and three lofty, white curtain walls, Castle Szeppaszony was a baroque pearl nestled in a vast, green cradle on the Mountain of the Moon. At the very center of the castle, deep in the inner yard, was an oak grove, and in the midst of the oak grove was the wall-without-a-door that compassed about a single tree called the Lucifer tree, and its garden. The castle itself was built in a great O; all its towers and houses were connected by parapets above and corridors below, by secret passages between and enclosures beneath where things took place that one must never mention for fear of being called over-imaginative or mad.
If you stood on my balcony at the top of the Trefoil Tower, built into the castle wall, you would see, just below and to your left, the main gate and the road snaking down through the plum orchard to another gate in the first curtain wall. Beyond that gate was a large park called the killing field, though I had yet to see anyone killed there. From the road, a lane branched off eastward, up through the woods, to our small but productive vineyard, and another forked west toward an ancient herb garden with crumbling walls and plants rooted so deep into Faerie that the air was thick with spirits.
Beyond the gate in the second curtain wall, the land tumbled down in terraces to the edge of the chasm where the River Kigyo roared around us like a dragon chasing its tail. On the other side of the river was the third curtain wall with its drawbridge and narrow-turreted barbican. Out in the valley, the village of Eiliria knotted itself for safety around the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Its fields and orchards were all bound round with sagging rock walls that had to be constantly reinforced to keep the forest creatures and hungry night spirits out. Deep in the valley forest, beyond the village walls, the Stream of Tears meandered south like a thread of light, toward the dark foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
We were indeed well fortified on the Mountain of the Moon, safe from our enemies, the Turks, who ravaged the lands around us but had not as yet dared to enter our realm full, as it was, of enchantments.
At nine years old, I was a religious child. A walking icon of the Holy Virgin, dressed in dark blue, red, silver or black, my dark hair in a long plait down my back under a crown-like jeweled and velvet parta. A large, ornate crucifix, chains of saints’ medals, scapulars, and rosaries shielded me as if my young, innocent soul were on the very brink of Hell. We were Roman Catholics holding out against entrenched Orthodoxy, Protestant incursions, assaults by the Ottoman armies of Mohammed, learned heretics, and witches that charmed the trees and birds and other wild things of the forest. Castle Szeppaszony was the last bastion of God’s Glorious Word teetering on the edge of doom.
One winter evening, I was in a small cobbled courtyard with a doll that was no plaything, but a protective shield, meant to take any harm that might come to me upon itself. I was admiring how the ice-cold waters in our unicorn fountain froze in the air like silver ribbons when I heard a mysterious, golden voice ringing down an eerie minor scale. The voice captured me, and like a net, drew me into the forbidden wing of the castle, to a door that was always closed to me. Red firelight streamed under its lower edge, a snort of dragon’s blood incense seeped out. The beautiful voice took me under its spell, then slowly faded away. The emptiness was filled with a chorus of deeper voices, chanting.
Crushing my doll to my heart, I reached for the knob and pushed the door open just wide enough to see clouds of gray smoke scintillating with brilliant fires of candle flame, and through the smoke, disembodied faces, white and stark with shock, staring at me. A shrill, imperious voice erupted from within, cold in its fury:
“Mara! Get away from the door!”
I fell back, and as if lifted by a whirlwind, spun down the corridor until the points of my shoes caught in the swirling hems of my skirts and tripped me to the floor. Lying winded for a moment, I glanced around for my doll. She was gone! I looked back and saw her small dark shape lying in a wand of firelight that flashed along the upright edge of the door, wedging it open upon the private chambers of the Countess Orzsebet.
I crept forward thinking that I might have time to quietly retrieve her, when someone in the room snatched her up.
There was a flicker of silence. Then, the door slammed open, and in that shaft of light, the profile of a beautiful mask appeared, surrounded by an elaborate circular neck ruff. A glimmer of bright fabric rained down from the mask to the floor, and a single hand curled there around the handle of a long whip. The mask slowly turned to face me, its eyeholes stared in my direction, and the ruff fanned out around its head like the neck feathers of a great bird of prey. The figure drew swiftly back into the room and out of sight, only to reappear and gaze at me again.
Captured in the beams of what I knew were the Countess’s eyes, I froze like a mouse in the witch grass waiting for the descending hawk. She walked toward me with a smooth, gliding step that reminded me of the serpent that slithered into my chamber in the night and hid beneath my bed to escape the winter cold. The eyes behind the holes of the mask bore down upon me, baleful and fiery blue.
She towered over me holding the bloodcurdling cattail aloft. As if she carried the fire within her, the mask glowed hot, motes of light sparkled in her red-gold hair, her jewels twinkled like dragon’s eyes, and her ruff stood out around her head like the rays of the rising sun. The voice of this glowing creature was hollow, distant, and cutting as the north wind.
“Mara, you are forbidden to enter here. If you tell anyone what you have seen in my private chambers, your fate will be thus.”
She snapped the whip. I shrieked. She threw my doll at my feet, wheeled around, and floated back to her chambers. The long train of her gown was stained crimson and left a faint odor of blood in the air.
The corridor was dark and very cold. My doll lay face down on the tiles like a fragment of torn shadow. Her dark hair was tangled, her dress that was copied after mine, was draggled and ripped. My gaze still fixed on that fateful door, I picked her up and beheld a dire warning.
Someone had plucked out her eyes, and burned the sockets black.
I picked her up and ran as fast as I could down the rest of the corridor, almost slipped down a flight of wide, snow-glazed steps, crossed the courtyard of the unicorn fountain, and plunged through the vaulted arches into the dim winter light of the castle forecourt. My steps echoed as I raced across the flagstones, alarming the sleeping doves that scattered around me like a storm. When I arrived at the tall, heavy doors to my wing of the castle, the guard flung them open and stepped out of the way as if to avoid a leaping wild cat.
Once inside, I slowed my pace. Finally I arrived at the grand staircase that swept up to the galleries. My legs were heavy as I climbed into the gloom. The message of my doll’s blinding was painfully clear to me: if I ever tell what I had seen in the Countess’s chamber, she would blind me.
I pressed the tip of my tongue against my teeth to calm my stampeding heart. Why was I afraid? I was a Vadfarkas. A warrior. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, in my heart I knew I was locked in eternal battle with Countess Orzsebet, my mother.
I continued up to the landing. The floor stretched before me to the foot of an enormous tapestry that concealed the entrance to my tower. On either side of the tapestry were two stained glass windows that sparkled for a moment and then dimmed, telling me that the sun had just fallen below the rim of the Carpathian Mountains….