On Wednesday evening, Aksinya and Natalya made their way out of the alleyway behind the dormitory and began to creep across the street. The spell Aksinya made was always intentionally short lived. She usually felt it disappear after they crossed the street and entered the house. This evening, it failed before they crossed the road, and Aksinya didn’t take the time to speak the Latin words again. They crouched in the shadows at the edge of the alley and street.
The noise of the rowdies in the tavern, the gasthaus, down the way was very loud that evening. Aksinya took hold of Natalya’s hand and pulled her away from the gas lamp near them. She marked the pools of darkness they could slip to from one side of the street to the other.
Aksinya held her new brown book in one hand. It was very helpful. She had almost completely memorized it. The spells were indelibly cast in her mind. They were very different from the ones she was used to. They dwelt with water, illusions, and the minds and thoughts of people. She wondered many times why the demon had given her just that book. She should be finished with it tonight and finally able to leave it in her library in the cellar. She wanted to try a couple of spells tonight also.
Aksinya took a quick breath. The street was filled with the scent of wood smoke and horse manure. She could smell the tavern in the air with its wood fire, fermentation, and hops not a half a block away to the left. That, with the noise of its drunken patrons told her exactly where it was. Without another thought, Aksinya took a step into the street. There hadn’t been any fresh snowfall for a while, but the temperature hadn’t been cold enough to melt it all. Piles of icy frozen gray slush filled the nooks and corners everywhere outside.
When they were halfway across the street, a voice called out from the archway through the school’s dormitory, “Countess, Lady Natalya, stop.”
Natalya whispered, “Countess, it’s Sister Margarethe.”
Aksinya snarled, “I can tell who it is.”
They heard the hard soles of the nun’s shoes on the frozen cobblestones. Their own soft slippers were cold, but quiet.
The nun ran toward them and crossed through a circle of gas lamp light very close behind them.
Aksinya hissed, “She can’t find out about the house. Nata, run. Run down the street and try to hide.” Aksinya pulled then pushed Natalya down the street toward the tavern. Natalya ran. Then Aksinya followed at a run herself. Aksinya called again at Natalya’s back, “Stay in the shadows and duck down an alley when you can. I’ll try to hide us.” Aksinya began to chant a Latin verse under her breath. Before she could finish it, a clawed hand grabbed her heavy cloak and dragged her into an alley. The strong smell of sulfur came to her. Sister Margarethe crossed right in front of her without noticing her at all.
Aksinya turned immediately, “Help me hide Natalya, or Sister Margarethe will discover everything.”
The demon hissed, “I told you to seduce Sister Margarethe.”
“I couldn’t do that. Do you wish us to be discovered?”
“Ah, a little truth right now might be a good thing. Perhaps you should find out what is going on just around the corner before you ask me anything.”
“What is going on?”
“Come let us take a look.” The demon grasped Aksinya’s hair and dragged her out of the alleyway. They only walked a few steps until they saw Natalya and Sister Margarethe. They were surrounded by the drunken men from the tavern. The men baited them and pushed them from one man to another. Their heavy hands groped at them.
In spite of the cold, the men were sweating, and Aksinya felt something else—a sense that there was no control within them, “Demon, stop them.”
Asmodeus laughed, “Why should I stop them. All this took so much of my effort to accomplish. I had to get them appropriately drunk. Not too much nor too little. Then at the proper time, a few sensual thoughts. A little bit of appropriate temptation that they turned by themselves into lust. Can’t you feel it in them? Additionally, I had to get that Sister Margarethe to watch for you every night. She checked your rooms—she has a key. When she found you gone, she came to watch for you. She’s been watching for three nights. You finally slipped up a little with your concealment spell tonight.”
Natalya screamed. One of the men pushed her to the ground. He lifted her skirt and called to the others, “Here’s a beautiful girl to take.”
Aksinya yelled, “Stop. Stop right now.”
The demon’s smile widened, “Do you wish to bring their attention to you. They would gladly rape you even though you are homely and unwomanly. Look they have Sister Margarethe on the ground now.”
The men eyed Natalya’s body. She twisted left and right and tried to push her dress back over her thighs, but the held it up and another man stepped behind her and grabbed her arms. Sister Margarethe lay on the ground now and one of the men had raised her skirts. Another pulled off her habit.
The demon laughed again, “Now they will rape them. The only thing you can do to help them is to use sorcery to stop them. You know how too.”
“You stop them. Stop them, I demand it.”
“Those men are mostly innocent. I can only stop them after they have raped the lady and the nun. Then I will be able to act in your name. I will torture and kill them for you. That will be on your soul. If you wish, you can kill them now. Then your actions will clearly be murder.”
“Murder in the protection of their virtue. To prevent rape.”
“Do it now. I’ll encourage you. I can’t forget how you hate the cold along with your false modesty.” The demon made a motion as if he pulled something from the air.
The hem of Aksinya’s dress and heavy cloak rose an inch but then settled back.
The demon stood awestruck, “What have you done? There are crosses everywhere on it.”
Aksinya forced a laugh, “You can’t take my clothing so easily this time.”
“Then I must encourage you in a different way. Look around, Countess. No one except you will come help them. Observe that gentleman there.” The demon pointed to the alleyway across from them. A handsome young man stood at the edge of it and watched the others as they held the women to the ground, and as yet, gaped at them and groped them. He trembled, about to move to stop them, but obviously fearful, so he didn’t do anything.
Aksinya screamed at him, “Stop them. Stop them, please. Help my friend.”
The young man walked out of the alleyway toward the men, then halted. One of them pulled a knife and pointed it at him, “It isn’t worth your life is it?”
The young man stepped cautiously toward the men again. His voice was hesitant, “It may be worth my life.”
Asmodeus cackled, “He’ll be killed, you know. Killed or raped himself if they are of that mind. Perhaps both. It isn’t that uncommon after I have touched their hearts.”
Natalya and Sister Margarethe writhed on the ground. Their attackers just now reached for the buttons on their pants and knelt on the hard cobbles before the two women in preparation to violate them. Aksinya lifted up a prayer as a great cry. She grasped the crucifix around her neck through her clothing and dropped her book. It fell at her feet.
The demon leaned toward her. His sulfurous breath touched her face, “That will do you no good. That guy isn’t listening to you. He never did before, and He certainly isn’t going to start now.”
Aksinya’s cries turned into a Latin curse. She began to shout in Latin. Her words flowed faster and faster.
The demon stepped back, “You can’t make that enchantment without preparation.” He reached for her. The smell of sulfur increased.
The young man stood helpless with his arms at his side. We stared at Aksinya. Natalya and Sister Margarethe stopped moving and stared at Aksinya. Her words were strange and a glow began to encompass her.
The men around Natalya and Sister Margarethe stopped and turned to stare.
Asmodeus’ clawed hand nearly touched Aksinya, but he flinched and pulled it back, “You can’t do that spell without a magic circle. It will bring the force of the world back on you. It may kill you. I can’t allow you to do it.”
Aksinya ignored him or didn’t hear him. She raised her hands and cried out a terrible word in Latin. The world stopped for a moment. All the passion in every person there suddenly disappeared. In that moment, the men from the tavern were gone. They were no longer there. It was as though they disappeared with all the passion and lust and emotion that had encompassed them in that moment.
As if it was an afterthought, the demon was suddenly gone too.
Aksinya let out another cry. She screamed. She felt something powerful around her, suffocating her. Then the pain filled her from head to toe. She heard a snapping like brittle sticks being broken, and collapsed to her knees. The crucifix on her chest seared her skin. She thought she smelled scorched silk and flesh. She doubled over and heaved and heaved again. She lost her breath and sucked in a lungful of vomit and choked. She collapsed to the street in agony. She couldn’t breath and in a moment blessed oblivion caught her.
Before Aksinya fully woke again, the pain overwhelmed her. She gasped out of sleep with a cough that sent blood and phlegm down her cheeks. Warm gentle hands caught her face and turned her head. She felt the relief on her lungs and her body. Liquid flowed down the side of face. She opened her eyes and saw the dark slick trickle that stained her bed and ran across the sheets. A voice called to her. It was soothing and kind. It was in German accented French.
Aksinya focused her eyes away from the side of the bed and saw that Sister Margarethe held either side of her face. The nun’s lips moved with the French words. As yet, Aksinya couldn’t make them out. She moved her eyes and extended her vision. Natalya leaned against the door with her hands over her face. Aksinya knew tears flowed down her lady-in-waiting’s cheeks. That was just her personality.
She turned her gaze back on Sister Margarethe. Aksinya wanted to pull away from the nun, but she couldn’t rally enough strength to move. She tuned her ears to hear the French that flowed from Sister Margarethe’s lips.
“…we think some of your bones are broken, Countess.”
Aksinya couldn’t respond.
Sister Margarethe’s face was tracked with tears. Her hands held Aksinya so tenderly, but she didn’t want this woman to touch her. Sister Margarethe’s voice caught, “Can you hear me, Countess?”
Aksinya nodded and gasped again in pain.
“The doctor is coming. They said he should be here soon.”
Aksinya shook her head. She put every effort she could into a breath without a cough, “Natalya.”
“Do you want the Lady Natalya?”
Aksinya coughed and nodded. A trickle of blood leaked from her lips.
Sister Margarethe didn’t want to move, she called across the room, “Lady Natalya, the Countess is calling for you.”
Natalya let out a sob and rushed to Aksinya’s side, “My Countess. What can I do? What can I do?”
Aksinya grasped her hand and pulled her with all her might down close to her face. She spoke Russian, “Alone…help.”
Natalya whispered back in Russian, “Do you want Sister Margarethe to leave?”
Natalya half stood. A tiny hysterical pitch filled her perfect but Russian accented French, “Please, Sister Margarethe, you must go.”
Natalya glanced down at Aksinya, “You may wait outside the door, but you must leave us for now.”
Sister Margarethe didn’t want to let go of Aksinya. She stammered, “Are you certain?”
Aksinya’s grasp on Natalya’s hand tightened, and Natalya’s voice strengthened, “You must go. Please leave us alone. I’ll tell you when you may return.”
Aksinya didn’t have the strength or the ability at that moment to say that she did not want Sister Margarethe to return at all.
Slowly, Sister Margarethe stood. She backed toward the door. Aksinya began to cough. Sister Margarethe cringed at the sound, but Natalya put her arms around Aksinya. The nun left the room and shut the door. Natalya ran and locked the bedroom door behind her.
Aksinya croaked out a weak cry, “My things. The drawer.”
Natalya ripped open the drawer of the night table beside the bed. She already knew where everything was. She came in when she could and stared covetously at her mistress’s wonderful items. She had never touched them before, but only looked at them. She wondered every day when she might learn to use them.
“Get them all,” Aksinya hissed.
Natalya pulled out chalk and tallow candles. She took out Aksinya’s dagger. She took out a bag of herbs and another of wax.
Aksinya struggled to get off the bed. Natalya eased her to the floor. She knew what Aksinya wanted. She threw back the wonderful oriental rug and cleared a space. She dragged Aksinya into the center of that space.
Aksinya gasped, “Chalk.”
Natalya handed it to her. She had to hold it in Aksinya’s hand.
Aksinya began to draw a circle on the floor. It was impossible for her to move enough to do it.
Natalya took the chalk from her. She had seen Aksinya do this often enough. She drew as perfect a circle as she could around Aksinya.
On her hands and knees, Aksinya examined the entire line of the circle. She pointed to a couple of spots and Natalya retraced them. Aksinya gasped through a bloody cough, “Penta…gram.”
Natalya nodded. She drew a pentagram within the circle. She knew it wasn’t as beautiful or perfect as those Aksinya drew so easily, but it came out correctly and looked almost symmetrical. Aksinya examined the points. They were all touching and not outside the circle. The lines all came together properly. Natalya drew Aksinya up so she could kneel in the center of the circle.
Aksinya pointed to three of the tallow candles and directed Natalya where to set them. One at the top and two at the bottom at the points of the pentagram. Aksinya wheezed, “Light… them.”
Natalya was ready. She pulled a taper from the fireplace and lit each one.
Aksinya grabbed for the bag of wax and couldn’t reach it. Natalya opened it and put the whole lump in Aksinya’s hands. Aksinya fumbled for the bag of herbs. Natalya opened that one for her too. Aksinya held the wax in one hand and the herbs in the other.
Aksinya motioned Natalya back with her chin. Natalya ran to the other side of the room. She wanted to watch. She could not take her eyes off Aksinya.
Aksinya’s lips moved slowly at first, but then faster. Her hands brought the wax and the dried leaves together. Aksinya didn’t look at her hands, but in them formed a small figure made of wax. Pieces of the herbs filled the lightly transparent material and stuck out in places. Aksinya’s voice almost increased to the level that Natalya could hear her, but it rose and fell in volume and the words were strange.
Finally, Aksinya grasped all around her. She nearly fell, but kept upright. Natalya didn’t know what to do. Aksinya’s hands moved slowly but frantically on the floor at every side. Natalya knew what Aksinya wanted, it was the dagger. She saw it just at her back.
Natalya called out, “There mistress. Your dagger is on your right.”
Aksinya mouthed, don’t speak.
Natalya fell silent, but without crossing the circle, she pointed to the dagger.
Aksinya reached out and took the knife by the blade. Natalya gasped, the razor sharp edge bit into Aksinya’s fingers. Blood trickled from the fist that held the dagger. Aksinya dropped it and seized the wax doll. Blood covered it.
A low sound filled the room. The wax melted and was gone. The blood was suddenly gone. The tallow candles were out, and a bright flash filled the magic circle. For a moment, Natalya couldn’t see Aksinya. She was about to cry out, but she bit her lip. Natalya blinked her eyes, and Aksinya lay prostrate in the center of the magic circle. Natalya ran to the edge and hopped from foot to foot. She didn’t dare cross the circle. She didn’t dare speak. She didn’t dare do anything. Finally, she couldn’t wait any longer, “Countess.” She screamed, “Countess, are you all right?”
Aksinya raised her head and nodded, “Come, sweet Natalya. All is well. I just must sleep now.” Her head fell back to the floor, and she didn’t move.
Natalya ran across the circle to Aksinya’s side. She put her arms around her mistress and held her close. She listened covetously to her breath and her heartbeat. She kissed her cheeks. Slowly, tenderly, she dragged Aksinya to the bed and lifted her onto it. They were almost the same weight, but Natalya was determined. Then she cleaned up the magic circle and put away all of Aksinya’s items. She laid back the rug. When everything was perfect, Natalya checked on Aksinya again. She kissed her forehead and ran to get Sister Margarethe.
When Aksinya woke again, Sister Margarethe held her hand. Aksinya pulled it out of the nun’s grasp, “Don’t touch me.”
“I…I’m sorry, countess.”
“I don’t want you in my room.”
“The Reverend Mother said I could look after you.”
“Why are you here, anyway?”
Sister Margarethe closed her eyes and put her hands together.
“I asked you a question.”
“The Lady Natalya and I have been looking after you since you collapsed in the street.”
“You brought me back here?”
“No, a young man carried you here. The Lady Natalya suggested it.”
Aksinya closed her mouth.
“The Lady Natalya told us that this was your house. She explained about how you had to flee and set up everything here. You didn’t need to keep it a secret.”
Aksinya glared at her.
“I realize you wanted to keep the existence of this place from us. I think I understand how you wanted to blend in with the other girls…”
“Then why did you follow and spy on me?”
“The Reverend Mother instructed me to keep a special eye on you…I didn’t mean to spy. We were worried about you.”
“Why do you care about me at all?”
Sister Margarethe colored, “You are one of our students. You are a special student.”
“Is that all?”
Sister Margarethe glanced at the door, “I…we love you.”
Aksinya wrinkled her lip, “Love me. I realize what you think about me. You feel lust in your heart for me. You want me that way…that’s why I don’t want you alone with me.”
Sister Margarethe stared in shock. She didn’t say a thing.
Aksinya looked smug.
Sister Margarethe’s voice finally returned. It was breathless, “Who told you that?” She reached forward to grasp Aksinya’s hand. Aksinya spoke a couple of words in Latin. There was a flash in the room, and Sister Margarethe sat back in her chair, “I don’t know what you did, but it doesn’t make me love you any less.”
Aksinya raised her chin, “I took away your desire and forced you to tell me the truth.”
“Love isn’t all desire. My love for you has little to do with physical attraction and nothing to do with a sexual urge.”
Aksinya’s look said she didn’t believe a word.
Sister Margarethe glanced at her feet, “Countess, I’ve spent twenty years of my life consecrated as a bride of Christ. I feel no desire for Him. I simply love Him.”
“What about your feelings for me?”
“I think you mistake my actions and my desires. I do love you.” Sister Margarethe turned her face, “And I do admit, I love you in a way I haven’t loved anyone else…”
“There, you said it.”
“I do love you, Countess, but twenty years of loving God has shown me I can love without desire.”
Aksinya’s look was surprised, “You can love without desire, without lust?”
“Yes, without lust. I don’t desire you sexually, countess. I want to be for you in the same way you are for your servant, the Lady Natalya.”
“I don’t trust you.”
Sister Margarethe sighed, “I understand.”
“There is much more here that you don’t understand.”
“Then tell me. I will be your confessor.”
“I’m afraid I am not ready to be confessed yet…”
“I know you are involved in great sin.”
“You have no idea how great.”
“I saw what you did in the street…”
“Then you know?”
“I do not know. I have no idea what you did, but it is obvious to me, that you bled your heart and your soul to save me and the Lady Natalya. When we brought you here, you were dying. The doctor who examined you was astounded. The way we described your injuries, he was certain you would be already dead when he arrived. Instead, you were and are the picture of health.” She stared at Aksinya, “How do you explain this, Countess?”
Aksinya flounced back into her pillows, “I will not…cannot explain it.”
“Will not and cannot are two very different things, Countess.”
Aksinya glanced at the sister from the corner of her eyes. She didn’t speak.
“I know you don’t trust me. You said it to me directly, but you must trust me. I will not tell anyone about this. I will keep your secrets. This I promise.”
“This is something you should not promise.”
“Because you love God.”
“And I love you too.”
“Do you swear you will not and do not have lust for me?”
Sister Margarethe looked at Aksinya eye to eye, “I do love you. I am infatuated with you. I’m not sure why. In all my years, I’ve never been attracted to someone like this, but I don’t feel desire for you—not that kind of desire. I feel as if you were my little sister and I just want to hold your hand and make your life better. I don’t think your life has been very pleasant for a long while.”
Aksinya put out her hand, “I still don’t trust you, but you may hold my hand.”
Sister Margarethe carefully took Aksinya’s hand in hers.
Aksinya looked away from the nun, “Who was the young man who carried me here?”
“In the excitement, we never got his name. He had been trying to help the Lady Natalya and me when we were attacked, but it was you who finally saved us.”
“My memory was a little shaken, but he was dressed like an aristocrat.”
“That he was. His clothing was a mess by the time he laid you in your own bed.” Sister Margarethe paused a moment then continued, “What happened to the men at the tavern?”
Aksinya shuddered, “I don’t know.” She gave a quick glance back at the nun, “They are not dead.” She looked away again, “I did not kill them.”
“What did you do?”
“I will not say.”
“It was a miracle.”
“It was the opposite of a miracle.”
“The opposite? It saved both your handmaiden and your teacher from being violated. I think it was a miracle.”
“You must not think that.”
“Why not. If it was the cause of good, how can it be anything but good?”
“Because I am not good…”
“That is yet to be seen.”
Aksinya laughed, “That is the truth. How long are you to stay here?”
“The Reverend Mother said I am to reside with you until you are well. We will work out the details later.”
“I am hungry. Would you ask the Lady Natalya to prepare my tea? Please ask her to make it a heavy tea.”
Sister Margarethe stood. She held Aksinya’s hand until the last moment, “When I am filled with fear or apprehension, I find that prayer helps me very much.”
“I do too, but I don’t believe my prayers are ever heard.”
Sister Margarethe reached out again, “Why would you think that?”
“It is because of who I am. I still don’t trust you, Sister Margarethe, but I will allow you to serve me and stay here, at least until I am well.”
During tea, Freifrau Bockmann came rushing into Aksinya’s room. She stood just inside the open door to the sitting room, “Countess.”
“Yes, Aunt Brunhilda, we are just having tea. Would you like Natalya to pour you a cup?”
Freifrau Bockmann pulled off her gloves, “Please.” She came over to the side of the bed and sat down, “You don’t look like you are at the edge of death. Was the Reverend Mother’s report wrong?”
Sister Margarethe put out her hand, “Perhaps we exaggerated the event a little in our concern. The Countess was injured.”
Lady Bockmann cocked her head, “And you are?”
Aksinya put down her cup, “She is Sister Margarethe, our German teacher.”
Sister Margarethe bowed in her chair, “The Reverend Mother has assigned me to watch over the Countess and Lady Natalya.”
“I see.” Freifrau Bockmann glanced all around the room, “This is a beautiful room. Are these all your things from ?”
Natalya poured a cup of tea for the Freifrau Bockmann and handed it to her.
Aksinya answered, “Yes.”
“We didn’t realize you had set up housekeeping and brought your family’s things out of .”
“We were lucky to get them out.”
“Yes, very lucky. You picked a lovely house, although it is in the city. It is convenient to the school.” She flopped her gloves at Aksinya, “Really, Countess, you should have told us before you made such an important decision.”
Aksinya stared at her, “I am not used to asking anyone’s advice before I make a decision.”
“Yes, of course. Your uncle could have helped you. He is a Freiherr and well regarded in Wien.”
“I’m sorry. Your help would have been valuable. I will endeavor in the future to ask both your advice before I make such an important decision.”
“That is kind of you. Thank you, Countess.”
“You do understand, apart from my injury, except for the Lady Natalya and me, the existence of this house would have remained unknown? That was my point. I wanted a private and secret place where I could feel the comfort and closeness of my family’s belongings in this city.”
“Oh, I see. I think I understand.”
“I really don’t wish everyone to know about it.”
“Ah,” Freifrau Bockmann sat back. She took a sip of tea, “I, we won’t let the cat out of the bag. You know you will have trouble keeping it secret.”
“We shall not let anyone know.”
“I hope the Reverend Mother is as accommodating. I will discuss our details tomorrow.”
“You and the Lady Natalya will still be able to come home. I mean to Grossbock.”
“Yes, we will continue to come to Grossbock for the weekends. You entertain us well.”
Lady Bockmann bowed. She took another sip of tea and nipped a biscuit from Natalya’s tea service, “Now will you explain how you were injured and how the Sister Margarethe became involved. I already spoke with the Reverend Mother, and I’m not clear on anything.”
Sister Margarethe smiled, “The Countess fell in the street. She was slightly injured and we were all very concerned.”
Lady Bockmann responded, “I see.” But her look said she clearly did not.