In advance of the publication of The Burned One on August 24, here is a short excerpt:
It was in a tiny corner of what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire, near its southern extremities where conflict with its Ottoman neighbor was a constant, and where all the many blessings of modernity brought by the nineteenth century had yet to make their way, that the stories of the Burned One became a part of the local folklore. The origins of the tales are obscure. Few in these, even more modern times, can be found who can recall having heard them. In time, they will be available (if at all) only in the archives of the folklorists and anthropologists, who happened to find themselves in one of the five or six villages in the valley south of the Rudenka Mountains, two days journey north of the Danube.
I am here to record that I was one, though more an amateur than a true scholar. Not only that, I met the man himself in those mountains. Such a thing seems impossible as I write it now, but it is true. My memory has not failed. I have not gone mad or surrendered to hysteria. I am of sound mind and body, and the events that I recount here did, in fact, actually take place.
How strange a thing to be writing again after such an interval of years. I was a different person then than the one who puts pen to paper now. What compels me to return to it, after so long, I cannot say. So many things have changed, and so much has been lost in my lifetime, but perhaps I can save this small piece.
It was between the two terrible wars that consumed so many lives—my own included, though that was later—that I found myself in the remnants of that once vast empire. How I came to be there is a tale of its own. After the Great War, my elder brother Frederick returned a broken shell of a man and I endeavored to care for him as best I could. Our parents did not survive the war, though the conflict never touched them. They perished in a motor accident.
The effort to care for my brother was more than I could manage, though I persisted until I was left nearly as damaged in my mental state as he. I sacrificed my own life for his lost one, not marrying, though I had suitors, and we became more and more reclusive in our ways. Finally, the doctors intervened and recommended that I leave Frederick to their care and take a vacation to restore my fallen spirits.
They recommended a Mediterranean stay—sea air and villas, wine and recuperation—but I have never been one for that. I took a steamer to the Adriatic, travelling from Trieste to Kotor and then inland to Cetinje. From that moment the region never left me and I returned many times, going further and further into those areas where the borders were unsettled, or where the villages were so isolated that it was almost as if the previous century had not ended. Everywhere I went I collected the stories of the place, talking to the locals until they were annoyed by my prying. It was in this way that I came across the first whispers of the Burned One.
It was said he had lived in the Rudenka Mountains, descended from a long line of nobles of indeterminate origins. Some said Hungarian, others Romanian, others still Turkish. Conquerors all, in that valley. The old ways were still in place there, for it was cut off from the rest of the empire, from that beacon of civilization Vienna, even from Budapest and Bucharest. Ancient forms of tribute were still demanded by the lords of the place. The firstborn child of the year, from each of the villages, male or female, was to be given to the noble family, upon the day they turned five.
Such a barbaric practice could scarcely be imagined, and yet, when I spoke to others throughout the region, it was common practice for a time. Only in this particular valley, it seems, did it persist, far longer than it should have. Still, there were few complaints about the custom, as is often the case when customs are observed, for the children, though stolen from their parents, were given a good life. They managed the nobles’ estates, cared for their children, and became their soldiers. All that changed with the Burned One.
He too demanded the firstborn tribute, but the children did not become his servants. In fact, he dismissed all the staff who worked on his estates, letting the land return to forest. He abandoned all his family’s ancestral homes but one, a castle deep within the Rudenka Mountains, high atop a cliff, vast and impregnable, overlooking the whole valley. It was there he demanded the tribute be brought, threatening to unleash devastation upon the villagers below if they failed in their task.
For many years they continued to do so, though they knew the Burned One was quite mad. Their fear was too great and they could see no way to escape his considerable wrath. It was said he was well-versed in alchemy and other forms of magic, and had built an army of automata to serve him. And he had all those children already sent to him, though what became of them no one knew.
Here the stories varied. Some said that he was using them for some strange alchemical rites that harvested their souls. While others declared that he had not constructed automata, but instead had turned the children into them, hypnotizing them and compelling them to all manner of horrific deeds. Others still said that he sacrificed them to whatever infernal gods he worshiped.
All agreed on how the tribute ended. A hero from a foreign land—there was no clear agreement on which—arrived and heard the sorry tale of the lost children and the tribute to the madman and determined to set things right. The woman—the stories were all very clear on this point—journeyed up to the castle alone to confront the Burned One. In some versions, she tricked him into releasing the children from his magical bonds. Once the spell was broken he had no power in the land and vanished. In others, the Burned One fell in love with her at first sight and the woman traded herself for the release of the children and the end of the tribute.
These tales, which I heard dozens of times, with even more variations than I have recounted here, fascinated me to no end. I had intended to spend only a day in the valley, but I found myself staying longer and longer, going from village to village, and house to house, asking to hear the tale again. Something about it disturbed me and yet also compelled me to discover more.
Perhaps it was the villages themselves that accounted for my attraction, for they were quite different from those I had encountered elsewhere. Not only were they isolated and seeming apart from time, as though the world had continued on while they remained still, they were oddly quiet. There was none of the usual clamor of a habitation, with children running to and fro at play. The dogs did not bark and even the birds seemed somber in their songs. Yet the inhabitants were hardly doleful themselves. They welcomed me to their homes with pride and good cheer, and gladly answered the multitude of questions I had.
Foremost among them was why the man was referred to as the Burned One. Here again the stories varied. All agreed that his face was badly scarred from burns, but disagreed as to their provenance. Some said he had been born with the scars, that his mother had been cast into a pit of hell by his father, who had come to realize the monster within. In other versions, the mother or the father, or both, tried to kill the child by burning him, only to fail in the attempt, either because their compassion would not allow them to go through with such a terrible deed, or flames alone could not kill the child.
Every time someone told me the tale, they would conclude by saying the castle still stood in the mountains and I could visit it if I liked. No one from the villages had been there in quite some time, for the noble family’s line had died out with the Burned One and the castle had been abandoned. The only ones who knew the way were the shepherds who took their flocks into the mountains when the snows receded, and it was one of them who agreed to take me there.
It was just after the summer solstice, and the pagan influenced celebrations that went along with it, when I was taken up from the valley into the mountains. My guide was a man of middling years I would hazard—though he seemed ageless, neither old nor young, as so many of the villagers there did. The shepherd whistled as he led me up the road, going at a steady pace. The day was warm, but as we ascended higher and higher the air turned cool and I had to put on a jacket.
It was evident that the trail we walked upon had once been part of a broader passage through the mountains, though it had long since been overgrown. Now it was simply a path for sheep and the men who watched them. The higher we rose the less distinct the way became and the more I began to suspect the kindly shepherd had led me astray for some foul purpose. It was only later that I realized how right I had been.
After some hours of ever more arduous climbing, we arrived upon a ridge that looked over the entire valley and I saw a castle perched upon its far end. It seemed to loom over the surrounding mountains and the valley below. Once I descended again I felt its presence everywhere I went, as though the Burned One was watching over his subjects from beyond the grave.
The shepherd gestured toward the castle, indicating the way across what looked like treacherous ground. He would go no further.