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Days went by and the Spaniards settled into the little village nestled under the glowering cliffs. They took what they wanted, eating the best food and drinking the best grog. They billeted themselves out amongst the townsfolk and helped themselves to whatever that household had. Nothing was spared. Wives and daughters were given no rest. Husbands and sons were put to work fetching a carrying.

Despite the cultural difference—a cultural difference that seemed to be because of the villagers’ isolation—an understanding started to form between the people and the occupiers. The conquerors and the conquered settled into a, if not always harmonious, largely peaceful coexistence. The villagers accepted the Spaniards as sheep might accept a new set of guard-dogs.

And so it may have remained until the winter snows had receded. At that time the men would begin to feel the call of their regiments to renew the war against the Dutch rebels. However, one day something unusual happened that interrupted this predicted path.

The valley of Barovia was only a few miles long and wide. Forbidding forest started at its margins, rising quickly to the mountainous barriers all around. Through the middle of this valley ran a stream, frozen in many places where the water ran slowly, but still open and flowing in the middle. Fields of winter root vegetables were interspersed with thin grain crops. This surprised Dide, who concluded that the villagers were so ignorant that they planted in the wrong season. Surrounding this, in stone walled enclosures or along the many muddy tracks, or away on green hillocks, herds of goats were tended by the youngest members of the community. At night the goats were herded into sheds, but by day they wandered. So too were groups of pigs, grunting and digging up the ground near, and just inside, the edge of the forest.

A boy was brought into the village square. He could not have been more than eight. He had been attacked by some indescribably savage beast. Somehow he had managed to escape whatever it was and had run back to town, but had died of blood loss before help could get to him. The women of the town wailed and pulled at their hair, howling ‘muerto’ and ‘autómata’, over and over a again.

“What do you make of it?” said Ernat.

“Well, he’s obviously dead,” said Dide, “but I have no idea what machinery has to do with anything.”

“Perhaps they have some kind of mill up there and he was caught in it,” said Jurisco.

“Perhaps,” agreed Albergio. “Still, we have heard wolves, and those wounds look like bites.”

Ernat nodded. The villagers took the boy’s body away to wash for burial.

“I should help with this job,” Jursico said, and followed the sad procession.

“The rest of you.” Ernat raised his voice. “Get mounted up, and light your matches. We’re going to have a look around.”

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