The two young girls played vivaciously in the cool water by the glade. As they splashed and frolicked, their laughter echoed around the mountain valley. The surrounding trees, comprising primarily of larch, beech, and spruce - and, of course, oak – gently whispered their approval.
They were safe here. Locals knew not to disturb them.
The sisters were special – as was the valley. The power and magic that resided in the trees, the stones, the water and the earth was a mystery. No one knew why the place was magical – only that it was. Over and over again, good things had happened here.
The siblings were Bandorai; female druids descended from a powerful line. and destined to lead their tribe one day. Their training had already begun, but they were still very young. They were full of fun and mischief, often exasperating their elders.
But so enchanting were the sisters that no one could refuse them for long.
Then the wind changed; a breeze from the south reached the prescient oaks and suddenly a chill descended upon the ancient groves.
The raiders didn’t know of the power residing in the young Bandorai, or the significance of this remote, high-up valley in the mountains. They didn’t know not to meddle.
Their mistake would have chilling consequences…
Tatranská Lomnica, High Tatra mountains, Slovakia – 1998
“…and the Cotini – a Celtic tribe - occupied this region from around the 5th century BC. Legend has it that the valley above the village was home to a formidable Chieftain whose daughters wielded powerful magic.
But a raid – possibly by Romans, though they rarely ventured this far north – pillaged and destroyed the hidden village, brutally slayed the resident druids, and callously violated the girls before butchering them.
It is said, however, that none of the soldiers ever managed to return home. All died strange and unusual deaths – some within hours, and others after a few days, or even weeks later.
Now the valley, once regarded as a friendly and welcoming place, is dark and forbidding. It is reputed that nobody enters it and comes out unaffected. Locals believe that one of the young girls – or the monstrosity that she became - still resides amongst the oak groves. They say that she haunts the valley still, and if anyone is foolish enough to enter, her spirit will invade your mind, and drive you insane with terror.”
I closed the guidebook thoughtfully; I couldn’t deny I was intrigued - and also somewhat troubled, though I didn’t know why.
The small paperback was an English translation of a locally produced guidebook describing the history of the High Tatra mountains. I’d bought it that morning from one of the small tourist shops in the village. Reflecting, I opened the book once more at the relevant page to study the boxed text. It made no mention of the origin of the story or who had written it.
I looked up. An attractive girl stood in front of me; dressed in t-shirt, shorts, and hiking boots, her bright blue eyes stared out of a tanned, freckled face and humorously assessed me. Bushy auburn hair completed the picture of a wholesome, fit young teenage hiker.
“I see you have the same guidebook I have,” she said, enthusiastically. Her English had a slight but definite accent – possibly German, I thought.
I looked at the book she was holding up. It was undoubtedly the same edition as mine, though a deal more dog-eared than my own pristine copy.
She indicated the page I had open on the café table. “I see you’ve been reading about the local horror story.” She paused. “I’m going up there tomorrow. My guide is taking me.”
“You have a guide?” I said, to cover my surprise at her words.
“Yes – though actually, he’s a student who lives in the village. He’s just earning some money during the summer break.”
“And he’s taking you up to that valley?” I must have sounded slightly dense, repeating her words back to her.
She blushed. “Well, what he actually said was, he would take me to where the valley is. I did get the impression that he doesn’t actually want to go inside.”
“So, you think there’s some truth in this story, do you?”
“Well – I think the locals do. I guess I’d like to find out.” She held out her hand. “I’m Ema, by the way.”
“Hi Ema – I’m Joël,” I replied, taking her hand. It was warm and friendly.
“Yes. How did you know,” I laughed. “And you?”
“I’m from Germany.”
“You’re good at guessing, are you, Joël?”
I hesitated, not wanting to appear too big-headed. “I’m not bad,” I hedged.
She grinned. “Me, too! I guessed you might want to come with me tomorrow when I go up to this valley.”
We set off after breakfast the next morning. I’d done a bit of travelling in my time, and making instant friends like this wasn’t particularly unusual for me. Ema acted like a nice enough girl. She was quite forward, which was fine, but…
But there was something. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, that made me just a little bit uncomfortable around her.
You see, she was right. I was good at guessing. I had what some people call a sixth sense. Often, I just seemed to know things. Growing up in the U.S. you keep quiet about things like that. In college I kept myself to myself; not a loner, exactly, but I didn’t conform in the traditional sense. I didn’t fit into any of the stereotypes – at least, I didn’t think so. I just kind of did what I wanted to do and quietly got on with it.
So here I was, on vacation in the Slovak Republic enjoying the mountains during my summer off. The High Tatras were tucked up at the northern end of the Carpathians on the Polish border. They were incredibly beautiful, and after the end of the cold war, still not inundated with too many tourists. Most that were there were, in fact, Germans – probably because it was close, and because it was cheap.
I couldn’t criticise that – I was there for much the same reason. Service could be a bit poor, but that was another hangover from the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism.
Anyway, I’m digressing. I’d agreed to go with Ema today because I was curious about the valley and its local legend. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was so fixated, but I wanted to see whether this fascinating myth had any truth to it.
Ema’s guide was called Stefan. Like us, a student about nineteen years old, but as Ema had said, he was working his vacation to earn some extra cash. He appeared to be a cheerful soul, but I gathered that Ema hadn’t yet told him she actually wanted to go inside the valley.
This could be interesting…
Our journey started with a short bus ride, followed by three hours of hiking – gentle at first, but becoming more challenging as we made our way up through the lower coniferous forests to the higher altitudes. By lunchtime, the terrain had opened up and we stopped at one of the welcoming mountain huts for a filling serving of the popular and tasty goulash.
Before we continued, Stefan spoke to some of the other guides who were there, and we watched as they all went quiet when he told them where we were heading. A deal of urgent whispering ensued with frequent shaking of heads, but eventually, the others individually clapped Stefan on his shoulder as we left. It was like they were saying goodbye to him for the last time. He looked a lot less happy as we set off up a rarely used trail.
It was about another hour’s trek to the valley, the trees becoming more and more sparse as we climbed. I trailed behind Stefan and Ema as I listened to them arguing in German. Following our lunch stop, Stefan was clearly having second thoughts about our trip, and it was interesting to see how he was reacting. It also made me think more clearly about my own motivations. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
My little sixth sense bell was quietly dinging in the background, though unhelpfully without any useful detail. But equally, I could feel something pulling me along on this little adventure, though I couldn’t quite work out what it was. It was almost as if I was compelled to keep going even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to anymore.
Whatever my misgivings, I sensed it was too late now. And so, finally, we arrived at our destination. The valley entrance was narrow and, looking in it was uncharacteristically dark – especially as it was still only mid-afternoon and the sun was high and bright in the sky. The valley was also densely forested, which I hadn’t expected at this altitude – clearly, there was some micro-climate going on in which flora could thrive.
Stefan was now looking positively frightened. Ema spoke to him and a heated argument with gesticulations followed in which Stefan said ‘nein’ a lot. Ema tried to give him some money, but he shoved it back at her. Clearly, we were at an impasse.
She turned to me and shrugged. “He doesn’t want to go in.”
I shivered. “I’m not sure I do, either,” I admitted. The valley looked distinctly unfriendly.
“Oh, come on. We’ve already walked all this way. It’s just a valley.”
“Are you sure?” I challenged.
She rolled her eyes in exasperation. I could see her thinking of how to persuade me. She pursed her lips.
“Well, I will if you will,” she said finally. It was like a challenge; a dare, if you like. I hesitated.
“Oh, come on!” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling. “Let’s go and see. I want to find out if it’s true.”
Short of bodily picking her up and dumping her on the ground, I didn’t think I could stop her. And, to be honest, I did want to see what was in there.
With some misgivings, I allowed her to pull me in. What was it they said about curiosity and the cat?
Stefan had his thumbs hooked through the straps of his rucksack as he stood watching us walk tentatively into the valley. The trees rustled in agitation, giving the sense that we were being scrutinized as we progressed. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
What were we doing? I asked myself.
Progress was slow, and the climb along the floor of the valley was taking much longer than I’d thought it would. The wind was picking up and the trees were moving in a disquieting manner, their rustling branches seeming to be talking to each other.
Ema was walking with an assurance that I found alarming – it was as if she knew exactly where she was going. She began striding ahead at an increasing pace, and I struggled to keep up.
“Hey – Hey, Ema, have you been here before?” I yelled questioningly at her disappearing back.
In the wind, she didn’t appear to hear me, and kept on moving. I was almost running now, and stumbled over a tree route. When I climbed to my feet, she’d disappeared from sight. Frightened now, I moved as quickly as I dared, desperately trying not to fall again.
When I caught up with her, I discovered that the wind had suddenly died and all the trees had become remarkably still. Ema was standing in front of the largest oak I’d ever seen, looking up at it.
She appeared to be talking to it in a language I didn’t recognise. And yet, somehow, I could understand the words.
“I’ve brought you another one, Eliška.,” she said. “A strong one, this time.”
“Ema - what – what’s going on?” I said, my throat constricting.
Ema turned to me and the look of desolation in her eyes shocked me.
“I’m sorry, Joël – I truly am.”
“What? Why are you sorry? What – what have you done…?”
She was crying now, wet tears rolling slowly down her freckled face.
“We need – we need a sacrifice,” she whispered.
My mouth opened in shock. A sacrifice?
And then I realised what day it was. Today was the longest day of the year; it was the summer solstice.
In the days of old, it was the eve when ritual sacrifices were made.
Without warning, I experienced an overwhelming dizziness as something – I didn’t know what – flooded over me. It was like being swamped by a wave of hate. My mind was in complete turmoil. I could feel hostility and overpowering rage all around me.
Something – someone – was in my mind. They were in pain – so much pain! And I could feel it! Feel it saturating my bones. Holding my head in my hands, I collapsed onto the floor and moaned at the invasion in my head.
There was fear, loathing and terror, all fighting for control in this maelstrom of emotion. Despair and anguish battled with anger. And hidden behind all of those swirling sensations, I sensed shame and humiliation.
Images started to flit through my mind; I saw two girls in a woodland glade playing in water, laughing and splashing. There was a feeling of contentment and happiness emanating from the sisters.
How did I know they were sisters?
The vision changed and suddenly there were men in the glade with them. Muscled warriors clad in leather and wool vests and armed with swords and axes.
These are not Romans, I thought, inconsequentially.
“Of course not.” It was a girl’s voice, derisive and mocking. And inside my head.
The girls struggled and started screaming as they were hoisted out of the water. I desperately wanted to look away when I saw what was happening, but I was not allowed to close my eyes to this. Their screams echoed and bounced around the inside of my skull as the images played out in my head.
How could they? I thought miserably, as I was forced to watch the horror. What monsters these men were, to do what they did!
After, the girls were simply left. They lay in the grass, beaten senseless and ravaged beyond my wildest imagining. Their blood was everywhere, seeping from deep, deliberately inflicted wounds; skin and muscle torn, bones broken, internal injuries, haemorrhaging, and I didn’t want to know what else.
Now I understood the frenzy of emotions I had experienced. But surely, they couldn’t possibly have survived after all of that?
Another picture invaded my consciousness. This time, a girl, no more than fourteen. She was deep in shadow, surrounded by darkness. It was an image from a horror show; emaciated, eyes shrunken in their sockets, misery etched on the young face. Covered in cuts, dried skin hung from her narrow, immature frame. The picture morphed and the same girl now had skin like the bark of a tree, her limbs mutating into branches…
“See what became of me!” the voice whispered.
Oh, my God! Was I going insane?
Other images flashed across my eyes; I could see the invaders now, each of them dying a shocking death following their assault upon the girls.
Now what was I seeing?
“This was their fate, after,” said the voice.
I was shaken as I saw the diabolical end that awaited each of them; two inexplicably attacked one another and died from their wounds before they had even left the valley. On their journey home a rider unaccountably fell from his horse into a river and appeared to be wrestling with himself before drowning. Another disembowelled himself with a knife and died in agony. The last struck out his own eyes with a table fork before cutting his own throat.
You did this? I found myself asking.
“They did it to themselves,” said the disembodied voice. “This is the fate of those who come to my valley without invitation.”
The confusion in my head reached a crescendo.
But I was invited! I thought desperately.
Through the frenzy in my head, I heard another voice – Ema’s voice.
“Can you feel it, Eliška – can you sense him? He’s one of us. I can feel it in his blood, in his seed! He is Draoi! He is as we once were!”
The maelstrom eased slightly. I could sense the uncertainty in the other one – in this Eliška – the one who exuded all the loathing and fury. She was listening, reacting…
“Maybe he can help us, Eliška. Help us break from our own fate. We don’t need to take him like we did the others. The ones who didn’t understand. The ones who only desired to take from us. This one has a power that might ease your pain!”
There was so much anger emanating from the presence of the other that it took a while for me to feel it ebb. But then I got a sense of myself again and took a deep breath. That breath was the last thing I could remember as I fell into a dark slumber, my sleep punctuated by nightmares that made me cry out in terror.
When I woke, the sun had set. I was lying on the ground, and I felt a terrible thirst. A cup, made of horn, was handed to me. I drank without thinking. I sighed with contentment as the cool, fresh water refreshed my parched throat. When I looked up, I saw Ema sitting cross-legged in front of me, her head bowed.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Groggily, I sat up. Looking at her, I tried to process what had happened.
Who are you? I thought. What are you?
I didn’t speak aloud. Somehow, I knew she could read my thoughts. She answered obliquely.
“She is my sister,” she said. “My younger sister. She was fourteen when the men came and – and did what they did to us.”
As she said the words, I saw once again what I had been shown earlier. I saw the terror, the pain they inflicted. I felt it and shivered.
“We were Bandorai – you understand? Druids. But we were young and hadn’t much training. In our desperation, we invoked magic that had consequences we didn’t understand. In our confusion and fear, we chose different paths. Eliška was younger and less able to control her power.”
Ema swallowed, struggling to control her emotions.
“Eliška’s lifeforce couldn’t remain in her body – both were too damaged, and neither could sustain the other. What remained soaked into the rock, merged with the living wood and flowed into the water. The rocks, the trees and the water - they and she are one now.”
Tears were once more falling down Ema’s cheeks.
“That is the price she paid. Now she is trapped within the limits of the oak groves that grow in this valley.”
Ema stopped speaking for a few moments to look at me. I was speechless, struggling to absorb what she was saying. It sounded like complete fantasy, yet in my mind, I knew that everything she said was true.
Ema sighed. “My fate was luckier. I was older and knew more than my sister. I took a different route. My body survived – damaged, but able to repair itself. There is magic here, in this valley. The rocks, the trees, the water – they are all full of it. But what was seen that day turned this place from a place of wonder into something rotten and full of darkness. The crimes committed against us – the old oak trees felt this and mutinied. They wanted blood.”
“You see, the magic we invoked was so powerful that neither of us can die. Yet, for my sister, it is a fate worse than death. And what she feels, I feel. The pain – everything. But my sister and I are also bound to each other, and if I leave here for long, she dwindles.”
“She cannot die, but she needs – sustenance. The oaks demand it. We took the blood of the monsters that did this to us, and now, we must continue to take blood when – when it is available.”
She looked up at me and smiled sorrowfully.
“I trap their body, and my sister traps their minds.”
There was desolation in her voice now.
“You’ve seen her. My sister is a monster. She devours the lifeforce of those unwary enough to wander into this valley, or of those I…”
She struggled to finish her sentence.
“Of those you lure here?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “I, too, am a monster,” her voice quivered. “Today I hoped for the lives of two strong young men to help sustain my sister and, ultimately, myself.”
She sniffed. “Príšera Vnútri,” she said. She saw my baffled look. “It is Slovak. It means ‘The Monster Within.’”
“And what you said earlier – when you were in my head. You think I can – help – somehow?” I didn’t want to think how that might happen. I was still remembering that I was supposed to be a sacrifice.
“Yes. I think you can free us. Do you know what you are? Can you feel the strength inside yourself? There is a power in you - can you not feel it? You have druid blood flowing in your veins.”
“How – how did you know?”
“You are aware of it?”
“My – my parents were Welsh. They lived on the island of Anglesey and were proud of their Celtic roots. My mother always told me I had the blood in me. I – I’ve always known things…”
It was the first time I’d admitted this to anyone – other than my parents.
Ema was nodding. “There is a magic we are aware of. We can take some of your blood, and some of your seed, and use it to release us.”
She was sad as she said this and I nervously swallowed again.
“Do I have a choice?”
She bowed her head. “We were not always monsters. Yes, you have a choice.”
“And if I choose not to help?”
She sighed. “Stefan waits by the entrance to the valley. He’s a good boy, and hopes to see us return from our ill-considered expedition – though he is not very hopeful. If you go to him, he will guide you back to the town below.”
Now it was my turn to pause. “And if I agree to help – what then?”
“The timing is fortuitous,” she said. “The enchantment must be completed before morning on the night following the summer solstice. If it works, Eliška and I will finally be free,” she said. I was astounded to see the desolation in her eyes. “And I will say goodbye to my dear sister.”
“What – what do you mean?”
“Eliška is too far gone to ever return fully. She will be released from her fate, but she has no body to return to. She will be free at last, and she will be at peace. After all this time, it is a blessing, and that is enough.”
She smiled sadly. “Me? I have been tethered to this valley for over two thousand years. And I will be free to leave here, should I choose. And one day soon – when it is my time - I, too, will die.”
For a moment, I was totally at a loss for words. Finally, I managed to utter what I was thinking.
“Is - is there no other way?”
She began to shake her head, hesitated, and then looked me directly in the eye.
“There is one other possibility, yes. A way that could allow both of us to continue existing. I don’t mind paying the price, but – but it would cost you dear.” She shook her head. “No. It is too much to ask.”
“Tell me!” I insisted.
“You don’t know what you are saying! You are mortal, yes? And you enjoy your life – this I can see. But you would have to give that up. Give up your body and everything that you are. Are you really prepared to do that? To do that for a monster?”
I looked at her desperately.
“I – I do not know,” I confessed.
“You do not have long to make up your mind. But I will leave you for a few minutes so you can think about it. I will wait by the small lake for your decision. If you decide to go ahead, you, too will become part of this valley. And once done, it cannot be undone.”
1,000 years later
An observer wouldn’t be able to see anything, for there was nothing to see – no human presence that could be detected in this delightful hidden valley in the mountains.
But visitors enjoyed coming here because, if you listened carefully, you could hear laughter, both male and female, reverberating off the sides of the valley and between the sunlit rocks and trees. It was as if children were playing; playing and enjoying the fullness of life that could only come from existing in such a place.
It was said that three joyful spirits lived here, and legend had it that they had restored the peace and tranquillity that had been missing during a bleak and terrible period of darkness that history has chosen to forget.