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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning

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As it winds through the heart of Transylvania, the river Maros cuts a steep gorge through the foothills of the eastern Carpathian Mountains. The valley is heavily forested in fir and spruce and ancient oaks, with only the very bottom along the river inhabited and cultivated. Farther from the river, the land is still truly wild; wolves and bears and other animals long since extinct in other parts of Europe still have a foothold in the shadowy valley. As a traveler heads upriver, the valley grows steeper and narrower, and direct sunlight rarely reaches the valley floor. The road is often obscured by fog, and is closed by snow for several months of the year. As a result, the town of Alba Iulia in the historic County of Fehér is largely isolated from the rest of the world; it is possible to imagine oneself still in the darkest depths of the Middle Ages.

On an isolated crag above the town, an ancient castle overlooks the valley. Most of the fortress is in ruins, but the southeastern tower, a hulking, squat, octagonal mass of dense black basaltic stone, remains standing. Nobody can say with certainty how old the tower is. It predates both the 12th-century medieval castle that incorporated it and the 2nd-century Roman legionary fortress atop which the castle was built. The tower's architecture is exceedingly curious, not resembling any other fortification in Eastern Europe in design or construction. It seems to have been made with little regard for inhabitation. There were originally no windows, though bow loops were cut into the walls in the 12th century; the doorways are only four feet high, low even by medieval standards; and the interior stairways are dangerously steep and have 15-inch risers. The stone from which the tower is built is not from any local source that can be identified; chemical and radioisotope analysis reveals the stone's composition to be improbably similar to samples of lunar bedrock from the Sea of Tranquility.

The tower itself has had several names throughout its history. Claudius Ptolemaeus, in his
Geographica, referred to it as the "Tower of Apulon", after the nearby Dacian town. The Romans renamed the town and the tower to Apulum, while the Huns called them Bălgrad, the Magyar name was Gyulyafehér, and the Austrians named them Weißburg.

Only one systematic archaeological dig has been conducted at the site, by Dr. Howard Carter of Miskatonic University in 1929. Dr. Carter's team thoroughly excavated the medieval and Roman layers of the fortress, finding many valuable artifacts that shed a great deal of light on the history of Transylvania and Roman Dacia. But the dig was abruptly abandoned before Dr. Carter could make more than a cursory investigation of the tower, following the tragic accidental deaths of three graduate students. Dr. Carter himself never published his results, suffering a severe nervous breakdown that left him unable to work ever again. In the decades since, the events that caused the dig to be abandoned have fueled endless speculation among those interested in the paranormal. The tower's popularity among occult theorists has dissuaded other, more rational types from conducting further scientific research that might clear up the mysteries of the tower's origin.

The people of Alba Iulia claim no knowledge about the tower's origin, most simply shrugging their shoulders and saying that the tower has always been there. They do not appear to give the tower that overlooks their town much notice; it has said that they never look directly at the tower, preferring to ignore its dark, looming presence. A few old women will pull anyone inquiring about the tower aside and whisper into their ear that the Devil himself built the tower, and that the dungeons lead directly to Hell.

In recent years the tourist industry of Transylvania has attempted to turn the tower into an attraction for sightseers, and have capitalized on a legend about an ancient Dacian warrior who allegedly committed suicide there by renaming the fortress the "Tower of Decebal". To date, few travelers have made their way to Alba Iulia, and most have left quickly. The tourist board's name for the tower has not caught on among the locals, who have their own name for it:
Félelem, or "Fear".


 
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I'm going to be alternating between updating my Bern/Normandy AAR and this one for a while, because I want to do something more character-driven. I've set this one in the County of Fehér, whose name and Transylvanian location made the decision to write a horror AAR obvious.

I've taken a few liberties with the history and geography of Alba Iulia, but I trust the good people of Romania will understand.

First, a bit of prologue from the ancient world, before moving to the medieval heart of the tale...
 

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Prologue

Prologue
Dacia Superior
Eve of the Calends of November, Year VIII of the Emperor Trajan (106 AD)



Dacia

Servius Flavius Cornelius was annoyed. For days, the Roman IV Legion Flavia Felix had been chasing the rebel Decebalus and the remnants of his barbarian army through the Dacian hills. The air was cold and damp, there was no decent water or food to be had, and the terrain was utterly unsuited to military maneuvers; Cornelius' legion was spread out along the road for miles. The barbarians, on the other hand, were on there own home ground, and knew every hill and pass. They had managed to pick off more than a few of IV Legion's stragglers and scouts over the previous week with their damnably accurate barbarian archery, hiding in ambush behind ancient oaks and vanishing into the mist as soon as they fired.

The barbarian general, had vowed not to be taken alive. Cornelius understood the reason for that; Roman legions had a nasty reputation for inflicting the cruelest of punishments on rebels. But Cornelius would have been perfectly willing to forego crucifying Decebalus and give the barbarian general a quick, clean death, if only the damned fool had been willing to stand still for it. Instead, he'd had to chase Decebalus halfway across Dacia after he'd managed to escape the siege at Sarmizegethusa. And now, when IV Legion had finally managed to cut off his retreat, he had found a fortress in which to take refuge.

The legate spat on the ground. The legion's eponymous luck had abandoned it, that was the truth of the matter. Mithras, the god of soldiers, clearly had a bone to pick with him.


Decebalus

Quirinius, the legion's Imperial tribune, rode up to Cornelius and saluted. "Well, what's the situation?" Cornelius asked.

The young tribune frowned as he made his report. "The town is called Apulon. It's the home of one of Decebalus' lieutenants, and as you can see, he has Hercules' own tower to hole up inside."

Cornelius nodded. "He could house half a legion in the thing, not that he has that many men left," he mused. "If it's well stocked with food, he could hold out for months."

"It isn't," Quirinius said. "I interrogated an old man I found in the town, and he said the place has been abandoned for longer than he's been alive. They likely don't have more than they were carrying."

"Didn't the barbarians raid the town for food before they went inside?"

"That's the strange thing about it," Quirinius replied. "They took almost the entire town into the tower with him. Only a handful of people were left outside – the man I spoke with said that Decebalus' men rounded up the townsfolk, men, women, children, old and young, the whole lot, and drove them inside like cattle."

"What?" Cornelius asked, confused. "That makes no sense." The first rule of siege warfare, as any general knew, was to allow only fighting men to remain inside a besieged fortress, expelling all nonmilitary personnel. Civilians would only use up valuable food and water to no good purpose, shortening the amount of time the besieged force could hold out. "He forced them inside, you say?"

The tribune nodded. "Except for a dozen or who escaped. It's odd – the man I interrogated seemed more afraid of the tower than he was of me. Seems the locals think it's haunted."

"Well, if it isn't, it soon will be," Cornelius said dryly. "What in the name of all the gods is Decebalus going to feed all of those fools?"

Quirinius shook his head. "I wouldn't begin to know. He's just a barbarian, after all; who knows what they might eat..." The legate trailed off and looked thoughtful. Then he suddenly went pale, and said, "No. No, not even a barbarian would do that."

"What do you mean?" Cornelius began, and then stopped. "Oh," he said flatly.

Quirinius, not a squeamish man – no professional soldier could be, not after his first battle – swallowed hard, as if trying to keep from losing his breakfast. "Like cattle, the old man said. Cattle."

Cornelius spat out an obscure curse he had learned as a tribune in Syria. If the barbarians were planning to turn cannibal, then they could probably hold out for a long time. Weeks, maybe months – and the Emperor needed IV Legion elsewhere, not pinned down in a mountain valley laying siege to an enemy fortress all winter.

Cornelius shook his head. He was an imperial legate, and trained to make decisions. Any decision, in a situation such as this, would be better for his men's morale than indecision on his part. "Set up camp, and have the men get to work on a battering ram," he ordered. "As soon as it's ready, we'll go knocking on Decebalus' door."


All afternoon, the men of IV Legion made ready to storm the fortress the next day. Word had spread around the camp of the fate of the town's inhabitants, and the legionaries performed their duties in grim silence. They were now determined to show no mercy to the barbarian soldiers in the fortified tower.

After the sun had set behind the hills to the west, plunging the valley into a long, shadowy twilight, a horrible shrieking came from the tower, as if hundreds of people were all screaming in terror. As the evening darkened to night and the hours passed, the shrieking slowly decreased in intensity; but then the legionaries caught a familiar scent in the air: blood.

"What Hades-cursed mischief are they about in there?" Quirinius wondered aloud. "They can't be slaughtering the whole lot of them at once, can they?"

Cornelius stared up at the dark bulk of the tower. "Not food," he said in a soft, distant voice. "They didn't take those people inside to eat them." He spat on the ground. "A sacrifice. He's making a blood sacrifice to his barbarian gods, that's what he's up to."

"Mars and Mithras, there must be a thousand people in there!" the tribune gasped. "What do we do?"

"What can we do?" Cornelius said with a shrug. "We attack at dawn. Make sure the men are ready."

At first light, a half-century of picked men (the entire legion had volunteered) hoisted their gleaming bronze shields over their heads to form a turtle, and carried a large iron-sheathed battering ram up the steep ramp of the enemy fortress. To their surprise, no missiles rained down on them from the tower. The only hazard was that the approach was covered with a thick layer of blood, which was seeping out from under the tower's gate. The air around the fortress was thick with the familiar stench of blood and gore. With no opposition, the men made short work of battering open the heavy iron-bound gate.

One of the lead decurions peered cautiously into the dark interior of the tower. Then he turned, fell to his knees, and vomited on the ground.

Cornelius abruptly moved forward, elbowing aside the men between him and the fortress. When he reached it, he took a deep breath, and peered into the darkness beyond the gate.

Cornelius had seen death and blood in quantity during his years with the legions, and had thought he had grown indifferent to it. But what he saw inside the tower of Apulon haunted him for the rest of his life. Years later, on his deathbed, he confessed to a priest of his new-found Christian faith that he had walked through the very bowels of Hell that day.

A few brave men followed him inside, and they searched the tower from top to bottom. They could not find a living soul within. The townsfolk had clearly not died quickly or painlessly. The barbarian soldiers had apparently slit each other's throats after finishing with the civilians.

In the highest room of the tower, Cornelius found Decebalus. The barbarian general had fallen on his sword. His body was still warm; he had been the last to die. His dead face bore an expression of cruel triumph. On the wall behind him, a long inscription was scrawled in blood; the characters were Greek, but none of the legion's officers could decipher the language. The only recognizable phrase was at the bottom, where five characters from the Latin alphabet had been scrawled:

M ANNI

Cornelius shook his head when he saw it. "Barbarians," he spat. "They think that writing is a kind of magic. Write a curse in blood, and they think it will come true."

"Well, if he's right, this ought to be one mighty powerful curse. I wish to all the gods that I knew what he had cursed us with," Quirinius sighed. "And what could he possibly have meant by writing ‘ponies' at the end?"

Cornelius snorted in humorless laughter. "Not manni, Quirinius. Mille anni, a thousand years."

"Oh," the tribune said in slow comprehension. "But... a thousand years of what?"

"Who knows?" Cornelius asked with a shrug. "Whatever it is, I don't intend to wait here a thousand years to find out. Take the barbarian's head; we'll give it as a gift to the Emperor. Round up the men and break camp. I want to be out of sight of this place before noon. We're finished here."

But something in the back of Cornelius' mind told him that he was far from finished with this business. Whatever Decebalus' curse had been, the Roman had no doubt that it was directed at him, and that he and the barbarian were not through with each other yet. Cornelius was not a superstitious man, but he had a feeling that he would never in life be entirely free of the bloody, ugly black tower in the Dacian hills.
 
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Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Gyulyafehér, Hungary
Eve of the Feast of All Saints, 1066 AD


Lázárus made haste to lock up his house, closing the heavy shutters over all the windows and securing them with stout wooden bars. Dark fell early this late in the year, and lasted long. Decent folk simply did not stir from their homes on the long winter nights. It was best to take no chances.

He looked over his shoulder, and the sight of his wife and children sitting around the table in front of the fire reassured him. Everyone was safe inside, or as safe as they could be. Everyone except his eldest son, who was seeing to the animals in the barn. Lázárus opened the solid oak front door and peered out into the darkness.

He saw his son making his way back to the house. Then, without explanation, Mihály turned and looked up over the treetops into the darkening sky. He was, Lázárus saw, looking in the direction of the old black tower.

"Mihály!" he shouted. "Quickly! Get inside! Get in the house!"

Mihály seemed to snap out of a trance at the sound of his father's voice, and walked briskly towards the house. Lázárus grabbed his son by the shirt as soon as he was within reach and hauled him bodily into the house. Then he pulled the door shut and drew a thick beam of oak across it, sealing them inside.

Lázárus slowly let out his breath, and leaned against the door as if tremendously weary. "Don't ever do that again, Mihály," he commanded softly. "Don't look at the tower. Especially not at night."

"I'm sorry, Father," the boy – he was almost a man now, Lázárus abruptly realized – said. "But I thought I saw a light up there."

"No!" Lázárus shouted, his face suddenly contorted in rage. "No, you saw nothing! There is nothing there! Nobody goes there, ever!"

Mihály took a step back, eyeing his father warily. "Yes, Father," he said.

Lázárus closed his eyes then, and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mihály," he said, looking sad. "But the tower – this is something I have explained to you before. It is not your place to deal with it. Not now, not ever."

"Then whose place is it?" the boy asked.

"Mine," Lázárus replied in a faint voice. "If I live long enough. If not, then perhaps it will be your son, when you have one. But you are lucky; this cup will not pass to you."

Mihály nodded, clearly not understanding, but willing to take his father's word for it. For the moment, at least, Lázárus thought. But one day he would ask more questions, and would need to be told the whole truth.

Or as much of it as he would be able to believe, Lázárus thought. Even he scarcely believed the entire truth, and he had lived with it – how long now? There was no counting the years.

But the light in the tower... That disturbed Lázárus. It was too soon. It should be years – decades, even – before the tower stirred from its ancient slumber.

Unless, of course, something, or someone, awoke it sooner.

Outside the small stone farmhouse, a wolf howled in the distance. A chill wind blew through the trees on the hillsides around them. Lázárus, safe inside his warm, tightly sealed home, nonetheless shivered. It would not be long, he feared, before locked doors and barred windows were not enough to protect a man from the darkness.



Pressburg, Hungary
The Feast of All Saints, 1066 AD


"Well, I suppose I should congratulate you, my friend," said Dezsõ, Archbishop of Pressburg, with a warm smile. "It seems that our young king – or his chancellor, at least – knows a man of quality when he sees one."

"And yet," replied his guest, "he still chose me."

Dezsõ laughed. "You never gave yourself enough credit, Máté," the archbishop said. "You'll make a fine count."

Máté merely smiled modestly and took a drink of wine from the goblet that the archbishop had poured for his old student. What a priest he would have made! he thought with a certain amount of regret. The shy, quiet young man had once been the archbishop's favorite student. He had a rare grasp of theology, and given that his abnormally twisted foot precluded a life as a warrior, the priesthood had seemed a logical future for him – the third son of a penniless baron had few options in life. But God had clearly intended another course for Máté Ákos. He had married young, not long before word had come from Rome that under absolutely no circumstances were bishops permitted to ordain married men any longer. Pope Alexander had a strict view of priestly celibacy, and hence the age-old custom of granting dispensations to allow the ordination of married men was halted. And so the Church lost a promising servant, and Máté's prospects had looked grim.

But then a new county had been created along the eastern frontier, in Transylvania, and had needed a count to fill it. Someone at court had whispered the name of Máté Ákos in the right ear, and Dezsõ's former protégé was unexpectedly granted a title and a promising future. Dezsõ wished he could take credit for it, but the truth was, he had no idea who Máté's patron at court could be. But it didn't matter – the news delighted the archbishop, and he was extremely pleased that his friend had broken his journey to his new home long enough to visit the cathedral in Pressburg and tell him about it.


The Cathedral of Pressburg

"So, what do you know of your new land?" the archbishop asked.

"Well, it's called Fehér, and it's along the Maros river," Máté answered. "There's a small village, and I'm told there's an old tower that is in reasonable shape – it shouldn't be too difficult to make it livable. My subjects are mostly poor farmers, Christian but only a generation or two removed from paganism. And, of course, the Pechenegs are just over the mountains, so I expect I'll need the knights that His Majesty's marshall found for me – they're something of a motley bunch, mostly younger sons of poor noblemen. Just like me," he said, smiling wryly.

"I expect they'll do splendidly," Dezsõ said. "If they are anything like their liege. And how is your family taking it?"

"My wife is doing her best to act as if she is thrilled to be a noble lady at last," Máté chuckled. "She's not very good at lying, though. She's clearly afraid she'll be living in a log hut like a barbarian. Zila is excited – he thinks he'll finally get the chance to pound the word of God into the heads of a few ignorant pagans."

The archbishop shook his head sadly. "Still the zealot, is he?"

Máté smiled. "He's not nearly as bad as he was a few years ago. I think he's finally learning some sense. Still, he wishes he could take holy orders, but as the eldest son of a nobleman..."

"Yes, well," Dezsõ said, "God often has plans for us other than the ones we would prefer, it seems."

Máté nodded somberly at that. "It's true. And yet, I'm glad of the opportunity. Isn't that odd? I'll be on the edge of the wilderness, with wild beasts and godless men outside my door, and as far from the royal court as can be, and yet – I'm actually looking forward to it."

Dezsõ laughed and said, "See? I told you Salamon's chancellor knew what he was about."

"It may be so," Máté answered, grinning. "It may indeed be so."

"Give my regards to your wife, old friend. I'll keep all of you in my prayers."

"My thanks," Máté, Count of Fehér, said graciously. "I have no doubt we'll need them."
 
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Veldmaarschalk

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Whoohhh, another high quality AAR.

Good work so far.
 

coz1

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As I began to read the first post, I began to yell, "Watch out - there be Wlaks in those hills." Mind you, I've never seen one - and I don't care to - but from what I hear, this is prime country for the short-strided wlak. :eek:

On a more serious note, I like this a lot so far. Very dark and foreboding. Interesting to see what you do with the horror angle. Much, so far. I fear Máté may reconsider his good fortune once he realizes what fortune it truly is.
 

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Really, really nice. Loved the chapter on the Romans. Let us see what happens when the clock strikes thousand :D
 

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What will happen? This AAR has me firmly in its grips...
 

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Chapter 2

Chapter 2
Gyulyafehér, Hungary
Feast of Saint Eusebius, 1066 AD



Carpathian Mountains

The December sky was rapidly darkening over the Carpathians as Count Máté Ákos and his traveling retinue entered the village of Gyulyafehér. For days, the party had seen few signs of recent habitation; there had been a few isolated farmsteads, but no towns or even small hamlets since leaving the County of Temes a week prior. Much of the land along the river Maros looked abandoned and overgrown, with old buildings falling into ruin. The county had clearly once supported a much larger population, and had suffered a severe decline.

But Gyulyafehér, if not quite worthy of being called a town, was at least a sizeable settlement. Somewhere close to fifty houses huddled by the river in the shadow of a steep, rocky crag, atop which loomed a dark, foreboding stone tower. The villagers had obviously had news of their new lord's approach, for they all came out of their homes and knelt as he and his small force of knights passed.

At the center of town stood a stone well, around which a number of the villagers had gathered to welcome their count. As Máté dismounted, they all knelt. He motioned them to stand, and then went to help his wife and daughter out of the carriage in which they had been riding. His son Zila remained mounted, and looked down on the commoners with a dubious expression on his face.

A short, white-haired man dressed in the black robes of a priest came forward and bowed low to the newcomers. "Greetings, my lord Ákos," he proclaimed. "We, your subjects, welcome you to your new home."

Máté smiled and extended his hand to the priest, motioning for him to stand erect. "And our greeting and good wishes to all of you, Father. Might I have the honor of your name?"

"Forgive me, my lord," the priest returned. "I am Lázárus Cornelius. I have been priest and head man of this village for more years than I can count."

"A pleasure, Father Cornelius. I expect I shall rely on you for much over the next few days, as I become acquainted with my land and my people." The priest bowed his head respectfully, and Máté continued, "But it grows dark, and those clouds threaten snow this night, if I am not mistaken. Is there a place where my family and retainers might spend the night?"

"Please, my lord, call me Lázárus," the priest said. "It is long since anyone called me 'Cornelius', and I find it sounds strange in my ears. As for your dwelling, we have constructed a house for you. My wife and daughters are preparing your dinner as we speak."

"Your wife?" Zila abruptly demanded.

"Yes, young sir," the priest said without flinching. "It was allowed, when I was your age."

Máté spoke again before his son could say anything else. "So it was, Father. It was not long after my own marriage, in fact, that the ban was promulgated. But we can discuss the theological particulars later. Right now I would like to get out of the cold. You said that you had built a house for us?"

"Renovated, my lord. It was an old house, long abandoned, but we began repairing it as soon as we heard that we were to have a count in our village. It is next to the church, not far from here."

"Lead on then, Father Lázárus," Máté commanded.

The house, it turned out, was a large stone building of two stories with wings extending to enclose three sides of a square, with room to house Máté's knights and a sizeable staff. Inside, it was warm and brightly lit, with colorful hangings on the walls and large fireplaces heating a sizeable central hall. Jolán, Máté's wife, inspected it with an air of surprised approval.

"This will do," she finally declared. "This will do quite nicely." Her daughter looked as though she wanted to disagree strenuously, but kept her silence.

"But I don't entirely understand why you went to all of this trouble," Zila said. "There's a castle up on the hill, isn't there?"

Father Lázárus started, and then said, "Young sir, that would not have done at all. The old fortress is a ruin. It dates back to Roman times. It is no fit place for a beggar to inhabit, much less a nobleman, and no amount of effort on our part could remedy that."

"But that tower looks intact."

Lázárus closed his eyes and appeared to mutter a short prayer before continuing. "No, young sir. The tower would not do at all. It is – well, it is entirely unsuited for a dwelling, and simply would not do. This house was the better option."

"I'm sure the house will do nicely," Máté declared. "Until we can afford to reconstruct the fortress, of course."

"Reconstruct?" Lázárus asked in alarm. "No, my lord, you cannot – that is to say, the site is totally unsuitable..."

"Well, it will likely be several years before we can seriously consider it," Máté said, attempting to calm the priest. "Still, I'd like to take a look at it. Would you care to give us a tour in the morning?"

"No, my lord, I would not," Lázárus said flatly. "Nothing in this world would be enough to compel me to enter that place."

"Yes, well..." Máté said, clearing his throat. "Well, Zila and I will just have to go ourselves, then."

Lázárus shook his head sadly. "I cannot dissuade you from this, can I?"

"No, I'm afraid not. I'm stubborn, Lázárus. You'd best get used to that fact," Máté said wryly.

"Then, my lord, my son and I will accompany you. But not in the morning; this storm will last until tomorrow evening at least."

"Fair enough, Lázárus. I hope it won't be this difficult to persuade you to say the mass for us on Christmas morning."

"My lord, that I will do with pleasure," Lázárus said.


Gyulyafehér, Hungary
Feast of Saint Stephen Protomartyr, 1066 AD


As it happened, the storm lasted nearly a week, and it was not until the day after Christmas that the men were able to make their trek to the ruined fortress. Zila and Mihály took a liking to each other the instant they met, and the two young men traded jokes and witticisms all during the climb up the steep, rocky path to the fortress. Lázárus, on the other hand, was silent and distracted, and kept fingering the beads that hung from his belt. Máté wondered at the priest's obvious fear; from what he had seen in the previous week, Lázárus was an intelligent man, not at all superstitious, surprisingly knowledgeable about the history of the area, and a master chess player. He didn't seem the type to take peasant superstitions about haunted castles seriously. And yet, here he was, clearly afraid of the ancient tower.

The sun was shining brightly for once, and the sunlight reflecting off the snow only emphasized the blackness of the tower, only making it seem darker. The ruins of high walls, clearly made from the native stone of the crag, extended out from the tower, forming a large rectangle with the tower at one corner. But the old Roman walls were clearly a later addition; the tower must have been constructed long before. How long before, even Lázárus refused to hazard; he simply said that, as long as his family had been in Gyulyafehér, so had the tower.

"And how long has that been?" Máté asked curiously.

"We came with the Romans," the priest tersely replied.

"What? That must be nearly a thousand years ago!" Máté exclaimed.

"Nearly," Lázárus agreed.

The tower itself was windowless and had but a single, low door. Even Lázárus, the shortest among them, would have to stoop considerably to enter the tower. The door was of ancient oak bound with iron, and was quite stuck within its frame, but concerted shoving by Máté and the two youngsters managed to force it open.

An unbelievably foul stench wafted out of the open door, nearly causing all of them to lose their breakfasts. "What in the name of... How long has it been since anyone has been in there?"

"A long time," Lázárus said.

"You're a man of few words this morning," Zila teased him.

"Yes," was the priest's simple reply.

They waited a while for the air to clear, surveying the rest of the hilltop. It had clearly been leveled to support the old Roman fortress, which Lázárus said had been garrisoned by the Roman XIII Gemina Legion until the empire had abandoned the province. The Huns occupied the fortress, he related – Attila himself had allegedly spent the night there, and fathered a few children on the local maidens – and then the Avars had destroyed it. But though all of that, the tower had remained standing, and showed few signs of age.

"Well, let's just see what's inside, shall we?" Máté finally declared.

"My lord..." Lázárus began, his eyes wide with fear. "My lord, I cannot. Forgive me for being an old fool – but I find that I simply lack the courage."

"All right then," Máté said. "Wait here for us. We won't be too long."

The lower level was a single large chamber. There were clearly no fireplaces to warm it in winter, although the men noted that it was actually quite warm inside. The floor was of stone, but was caked with what must have been centuries of dirt. There were two appallingly steep stone stairways leading to the next floor, and a heavy wooden trap door near one wall that apparently would give access to the dungeons. Other than that, the tower was bare.

"Not much to it, is there?" Máté commented. "Certainly nothing to fear, unless it's upstairs. Shall we go see?"

They had to climb the stairs on all fours, as if they were ladders – and indeed, they were nearly as steep. The next floor was divided into smaller chambers by brick partitions that looked like a late addition, though the doorways between them were as low as the main door had been. It was otherwise as bare as the ground floor. And so it was on the floor above that as well.

The top floor, however, had a surprise. In one room, lying on the floor, they found an ancient, mummified corpse. It was headless, but was otherwise intact, and was wearing the rotting remnants of a leather hauberk sewn with corroded bronze plates.

"I wonder who this was," Máté said curiously.

"Father, come look at this," Zila said, curiously examining one wall. "There's some kind of writing here. It looks Greek, but I can't make out what it says."

Máté joined his son, and examined the faint brownish characters on the wall. Much of the old pigment had flaked off, but what remained clearly showed the shapes of Greek letters. The language, however, was not Greek, and neither Máté nor Zila could make sense it. Surprisingly, it was Mihály who claimed to be able to understand at least part of it. He pointed to the first line, and said, "Those two words are the name of one of the Pecheneg gods."

"Really?" Zila asked suspiciously. "What do you know of this pagan god?"

"Not much," Mihály admitted. "My father would know more, I think. I've only heard a few travelers' tales, but they say this one is bloodthirsty even for a pagan god."

However, the last line was clearer, and was in Latin, so all of them could read it:

XL ANNI

"Forty years? What could that mean?" Zila wondered aloud.

"Who knows?" Máté said. "It doesn't matter. Probably some pagan curse on whoever killed this man here. Whoever he was, I think Lázárus had the right of it. This place is clearly not in any condition for us to live in, and it will be years, maybe decades, before we can rebuild the fort. So we should leave this old warrior in peace, if indeed he is at peace."

When the trio emerged, they were somewhat surprised to see that the sky was filling with dark clouds. Lázárus was sitting on a nearby stone, saying his rosary.

"Have you seen enough?" the old priest asked them without preamble.

"We have," Máté said. "And you were right. Let's leave this place, and get back to the feasting, shall we?"
 
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unmerged(7269)

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coz1 said:
As I began to read the first post, I began to yell, "Watch out - there be Wlaks in those hills." Mind you, I've never seen one - and I don't care to - but from what I hear, this is prime country for the short-strided wlak. :eek:

On a more serious note, I like this a lot so far. Very dark and foreboding. Interesting to see what you do with the horror angle. Much, so far. I fear Máté may reconsider his good fortune once he realizes what fortune it truly is.

Hey, what do you think I meant by "other animals long since extinct in other parts of Europe"? Of course, at this point in history, most of the short-strided wlak population is in Pecheneg lands, but there are a few shortatthefront-longattheback-strided wlaks in some of the more remote Carpathian vallyes.

And thanks to everyone who's commented. I'm enjoying writing this immensely - I've always thought that horror is great fun to write. (I enjoy writing it more than I enjoy reading it, actually.) I hope I can keep this up. I seem to be stretching things out quite a bit - I'm at 2000 words already, and I've made it to the first day of the actual game. At this rate, I'll have something longer than the OED by the time I reach the fateful day in 1106 when... Well, I've only played the game as far as 1086, so even I don't know what happens yet. :D
 

Lurken

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I love it, and fear it. The blood writings as changed!
 

Drozh

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Impressive stuff...I will be reading...
 

J. Passepartout

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I see the curse automatically corrects itself, as if a clock, for the amount of time remaining. I wonder if Máté, or any of the others, will still be alive when the time comes. Sounds like it will be painful if it is anything like what happenned to the barbarians a thousand years before.
 

unmerged(7269)

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J. Passepartout said:
I see the curse automatically corrects itself, as if a clock, for the amount of time remaining. I wonder if Máté, or any of the others, will still be alive when the time comes. Sounds like it will be painful if it is anything like what happenned to the barbarians a thousand years before.

Thousand-year-old curses can be pretty nasty things, yes. As for Máté, he's hanging on longer than I expected in my game. But he'll be in his late 70s when 1106 rolls around. If he's still alive then... Well, who knows? :eek:

I hope to get the next chapter of my Bern/Normandy AAR up by tomorrow, and then I'll be back at work on this. Promise. Thanks to all who have commented!
 

coz1

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Ah yes, must have forgotten about the shortatthefront-longattheback-strided wlaks. How could I? ::slaps forehead::

The old priest did his best to convince Máté not to go. I fear for him now, even if he has decided to return to the feast. The growing darkness expresses this will just be the start.
 
Oct 28, 2004
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Briliant, absolutely brilliant. I love this AAR at first sight, or should that be first reading.

will be reading