My name is Toma Nicolescu and I was a warrior, a servant of Her Majesty, the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, who by her own hand and tender heart sent me on that mission at the urging of her most trusted adviser, Grigory Potyomkin, in the year of our Lord 1772.
It was a year of war, this one the Russo-Turkish war, one of so many with the Ottoman Empire. I had slain the enemy with more ambition than most in the humble service of the empress, or so it has been said, and having earned Her Majesty’s complete trust in my loyalty and skill, I was dispatched by her to the south and east, through Ukraine to the principality of Moldavia, just north of the Black Sea and west of Transylvania, to the country estate of the Cantemir family nestled up against the base of the Carpathian Mountains.
To my understanding, the family descendants of Dimitrie Cantemir, the late prince of Moldavia, were owed a debt for his loyalty to Russia. Indeed, it was said that the path to the heart of Moldavia ran through the Cantemir crest, but that was all politics— none of my business.
On that day my business was to travel to this remote, lush green valley in western Moldavia and give protection to this most important family who retreated to the estate every summer. Russia had occupied Moldavia. Enemies were about with sharp knives and blunt intentions. The black plague had mercilessly taken the lives of many in the cities. A ruler loyal to Catherine the Great would soon be selected to take the reins of this important principality, and the Cantemir family would play a critical role in that decision as they held such a lofty position of respect among all Moldavians.
My charge was simple: No harm could come to this family.
The sun was sinking over the Carpathian peaks to our left as my friend in arms, Alek Cardei, and I sat atop our mounts and stared down at the valley. The great white castle with its twin spires stood on emerald grasses an hour’s ride down the twisted path. A tall stone wall ran the length of the southern side where the road ran into the property. Green lawns and gardens surrounded the estate, encompassing ten times the ground as the house itself. The estate had been commissioned by Dimitrie Cantemir in 1711, when he was prince of Moldavia for a brief time before retreating to Turkey.
“I see the twin peaks, but I see no gowns,” Alek said, squinting down valley. His gloved hand was on his gold-busted sword. Leather armor wrapped his chest and thighs, same as mine. A goatee cupped his chin and joined his mustache but he’d shaved the rest of his face in the creek earlier, anticipating his ride into the estate, the arriving hero from abroad.
Alek, the lover.
Toma, the warrior.
I looked down at the golden ring on my finger, which bore the empress’s insignia, and I chuckled. Alek’s wit and charm were always good friends on a long journey, and he wielded both with the same ease and precision with which I swung my sword.
I nodded at my fair-headed friend as he turned his pale blue eyes toward me. “We’re here to protect the sisters and their family, not wed them.”
“So then you cannot deny it: the sisters are on your mind. Not the mother, not the father, not the family, but the sisters. These two female frolickers who are the talk of Ukraine.” Alek turned his mirthtwisted face back to the valley. “Heat has come to the dog at last.”
To the contrary, though Alek could not know, I had taken a vow to Her Majesty not to entangle myself while here in Moldavia.
She was all too aware of the sisters’ reputation, and she suggested I keep my head clear on this long assignment that might too easily give us much idle time.
“One favor, Toma,” she said.
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Stay clear of the sisters, please. At least one of you ought to have a clear mind.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” But Alek was a different matter, and there was hardly any reason to deny him his jesting. It always lifted my spirits.
If I were a woman I would have loved Alek. If I were a king I would have hired him to remain in my courts. If I were an enemy
I would have run and hid, because wherever you found Alek you would find Toma, and you would surely die unless you swore allegiance to the empress.
But I was the farthest thing from a woman, I had never aspired to be a king, and I had no mortal enemies save myself.
My vice was honor: chivalry when it was appropriate, but loyalty to my duty first. I was Alek’s closest and most trusted friend, and I would have died for him without a care in the world.
He blew out some air in exasperation. “I have gone to the ends of the earth with you, Toma, and I would still. But this mission of ours is a fool’s errand. We come here to sit with babies while the armies dine on conquest?”
“So you’ve made abundantly clear for a week now,” I returned.
“What happened to your yearning for these sisters? As you’ve said, they are rumored to be beautiful.”
“Rumors! For all we know they are spoiled fat poodles. What can this valley possibly offer that the nights in Moscow can’t? I’m doomed, I tell you. I would rather run a sword through myself now than suffer a month in that dungeon below.”
I could see through his play already. “From frolicking sisters to suicide so quickly? You’re outdoing yourself, Alek.”
“I’m utterly serious!” His face flashed, indignant. “When have you known me to sit on my hands for weeks on end with nothing but a single family to occupy me? I’m telling you this is going to be my death.”
He was still playing me, and I him. “So now you expect me to give you leave to exhaust your fun here then go gallivanting about the countryside seeking out mistresses in the other estates?
Or would you rather slip out at night and slit a few evil throats so you can feel like a man?”
He shrugged. “Honestly, the former sounds more appealing.”
His gloved finger stabbed skyward. “But I know my duty and would die by your side fulfilling it.” He lowered his hand. “Still, as God is my witness, I will not tolerate a month of picking my teeth with straw while the rest of the world fights for glory and chases skirts.”
“Don’t be a fool, man. Boredom could not catch you if it chased you like a wolf. We’ll establish a simple protocol to limit all access to the estate, post the sentries, and mind the women—I understand that the father will be gone most of the time. As long as our duties are in no way compromised, I will not stand in the way of your courting. But as you say, they may be fat poodles.”
A sound came from behind us. “Who has business with the Cantemirs? Eh?”
I spun to the soft, gravelly voice. An old shriveled man stood there, grasping a tall cane with both hands. His eyes were slits, his face was wrinkled like a dried-out prune, and his long stringy gray hair was so thin that a good wind would surely leave him bald. I wasn’t sure he could actually see through those black cracks below his brow.
Alek humphed and deferred to me. How had this ancient man walked up on us without a sound? He was gumming his lips, toothless.
I held my hand up to Alek and drew my pale mount about to face the man. “Who asks?”
A bird flew in from the west, a large black crow. As I watched somewhat stunned, it alighted on the old man’s shoulder, steadied itself with a single flap of its wings, and came to rest. The man didn’t react, not even when the crow’s thick wing slapped his ear.
“I don’t have a name,” the old man said. “You may call me an angel if you like.”
Alek chuckled, but I was sure it was a nervous reaction without a lick of humor.
“Who inquires of the Cantemir estate?” he asked again.
“Toma Nicolescu, in the service of Her Majesty the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, who now rules Moldavia. And if you are an angel then you may vanish as all angels vanish, into the air of superstition.”
“Toma?” the old man croaked.
“What business do you have with this estate?”
“Eh, that is you? Toma Nicolescu?”
His demeanor now bothered me more than I cared to admit.
Was this my elder, whom I should honor, or a wandering lunatic?
“Watch your tongue, old man,” Alek snapped.
The crow cocked its head and lined up one of its beady eyes for a hard look at Alek; the old man did the same.
“Eh? Is that you too, Toma?”
Alek’s brow furrowed. “Stop playing the buffoon. And get rid of that cursed bird.”
“State your business, old man,” I demanded.
He lifted a boney, scarcely fleshed hand and pointed to the west.
“There is evil in the wind. Beware, Toma. Beware the evil.”
“Don’t be a loon . . .”
I held up my hand to stop Alek, interested in the oddity before us, this ancient blind prune and his all-seeing crow.
“What makes you think there is evil to beware?” I asked.
“Eh? The crow saw it.”
“The crow told you that, did he? And does your crow speak as well?” Alek’s voice wrung mockery from each word. Lightening stabbed at the plains in the east. I hadn’t noticed the clouds on the horizon until now. A muted peal of thunder growled at us, as if in warning I thought, and I wasn’t given to superstition.
The devil wasn’t my enemy and God wasn’t my friend. Nothing I’d experienced in my twenty-eight years had moved me to believe in either.
The old wizard with his crow was staring at me through slits, silent. I wanted to know why the man seemed to sense the threat— it was my job to know. So I dismounted, walked up to him, and dipped my head, an easy thing to do considering his age, for I had always been given to respecting the aged.
The black bird was only three feet from me, jerking its head for a better look, sizing me up, deciding whether he should pluck my eyes out.
I spoke kindly, in a low voice. “Please, if you feel it wise, tell me why your crow would warn us of evil?”
He smiled a toothless grin, all gums and lips. “This is Peter the Great. I can’t see so well, but they tell me he’s magnificent bird. I think he likes me.”
“I would say he looks like a devil. So why would a devil tell an angel that evil is near?”
“I’m not the devil, Toma Nicolescu. He is far more beautiful than I.”
I was sure I could hear Alek snickering, and I had half a mind to shut him up with a glare.
“And who is this beautiful devil?”
“A man with a voice like honey who flies through the night.”
The old man removed his right hand from the staff and used it like a wing. “But God was the one who told me to tell Toma Nicolescu that evil is in contest with you. He said you would come here, to the Brasca Pass. I’ve been waiting for three days, and I do think one more day might have claimed my life.”
“So the crow saw it, and then God told you, his angel, to warn us,” Alek scoffed. “How is that possible when we didn’t even know which route we would take until yesterday?”
“Perhaps God can read your minds.”
“Our minds didn’t even know!”
“But God did. And here you are. And now I have done my thing and can live a little longer with my crow. I should go now.” He started to turn.
“Please, kind sir.” I put my hand on his. “Our mission is only to protect the estate. Is there anything else you can tell us? I don’t see how a warning of evil given by a crow is much use to us.”
The man’s gentle face slowly sagged and became a picture of foreboding. “I can hardly advise you, who thinks the devil is only hot air, now can I?”
I was surprised that the old man knew this about me. But it could as easily have been a lucky guess.
“As for your oversexed friend, you may tell him that this valley will certainly exhaust his feral impulses. I suspect that you are both in for a rather stimulating time. Now, I must be going. I have a long way to travel and the night is coming fast.”
With that he turned and walked away, a slow shuffle that made me wonder how he expected to reach the path much less the nearest town, Crysk, a full ten miles south.