And so the King Bennet, heavy with the ennui of his days, said to the sage Alassad, “Tell me, I charge you, a tale so wondrous and uplifting that it raises my soul away from the slough of despond in which it lies. I tell you most solemnly, that I can only find pleasure in the stories and fables of yore, of which you have such a marvellous stock.”
The sage Alassad nodded and stroked his white beard. “Great King,” he said, “I have a tale for you so engrossing that if it were written even with grains of sand on a beach, it would still serve as instruction for those who might wish to read."
"What is that tale?" asked the King Bennet.
"Great King, I refer to the saga of the Blessed Saint Vladimir, to whom the world owes so much, and of his confrontation with the Vampire Vavavoom.”
The King Bennet peered at the sage with a bleary eye. “I have never heard of this tale,” he said. “If it be as good as you say, I will reward you handsomely.”
“The pleasure of instructing you in it, O King,” the sage responded, “is its own reward. Very well –“
One day, long ago, the Blessed Saint Vladimir was riding out into the country on his trusty steed, Armata, and carrying in one hand his mighty lance, Topol M. It was a freezing winter day, and the snow lay in drifts on the ground and weighed down the bare branches of the trees, so that most people may have preferred to stay at home. But not Vladimir, who spent his days on the lookout for wrongs to right and maidens to succour.
Now, as everyone knows, those were the days when the world was much troubled by monsters of all kinds, which crawled out of the mists of the past, where they were imagined to have been consigned to history, to plague the people once more. So the Blessed Saint had much to do, and many enemies to vanquish. It was, as you might say, a full-time job.
So it was nothing out of the ordinary when, on this day, the Saint Vladimir saw, running through the forest in fright, a young lady. She had a dress of blue, blood and mud spattered her dainty yellow boots, and she called out piteously as she ran.
The Saint Vladimir turned his trusty mount towards her, and drew up by her side. “Gentle maiden,” he said, “what is it that sends you screaming with fear through the forest, with your dress of blue as the sky, and your boots that are yellow as the ripening grain?”
“Oh Blessed One,” the girl faltered, “I am pursued by a monster with a face of iron, in whose heart burns a crooked cross shaped like a hook. Save me!”
A crooked cross? The Saint Vladimir’s thoughts immediately flew back several decades, when such a monster had come roaring out of the West, and laid wastes of the lands all around. For a time it looked like nothing could stop the creature. For a time it looked as though it would take over the entire world, until nothing was left that it had not burnt to ashes in its passing.
But then – and the Saint Vladimir’s blood thrilled at the memory – the monster had come to a place, a holy place on the bank of a river, where the earth and sky and land had joined forces against it with blood and ice and tempered steel. And step by step it had been forced back, beaten back to the west until it had been cornered in its very lair and destroyed by fire. Until now it had seemed that that monster, at least, had been vanquished.
Now, from out of the western wastes, where it had cowered for lo these many years, it had come again.
“Show me where the monster is, Lady,” Saint Vladimir said, gently, lifting her into the saddle behind him. “I will fight it and defeat it, as it was defeated before.” But even the Saint had a qualm in his breast, for he knew the destruction that had to be visited on the world to beat the monster last time, and how much the suffering might be this time round.
Still, it had to be done, and the Saint turned his trusty steed in the direction which the terrified maiden indicated. Gripping his great lance, he urged the mount on.
Soon there was no doubt that they were approaching the monster. There was the smell of burning in the air, and a roaring as of a million throats shrieking in hate. And then, in a rush of flame and smoke, the monster itself appeared, with its iron face and the hooked symbol of evil that burned in its breast.
“Give up the woman,” the creature roared when it saw the Blessed Vladimir. “Give her up to me, vile Vladimir, and flee to your craven hovel, to whimper there in fear until I come to devour you. For the woman, with her dress blue as the sky and her boots like the ripening grain, is mine and mine alone.”
And when he heard this, a great rage rose in the Blessed Saint Vladimir’s indomitable heart. “I will not give over the girl to you,” he said, “for she is innocent and defenceless, and it is for me to save the innocent and defenceless from harm. Furthermore, she has asked for my protection.”
“Then I will destroy her,” the monster of iron and fire roared. It pulled up immense rocks from the ground, and began flinging it at the maiden, attempting to crush the life out of her with one blow.
Then the Saint Vladimir whispered in the ear of his trusty steed, and the mighty mount broke into a gallop. Across the snow and mud thundered the beast Armata, his immense tread smashing the frozen soil. Across the open ground came mighty Armata, inexorable as death itself. Across the land came terrifying Armata, and on his back, Vladimir the Blessed, his lance Topol M held high.
Nothing could stand before that tremendous charge. With a crash that shook the world, Armata smashed into the monster with the face of iron, and his mighty hooves smashed it back on to the ground. Rearing up, Armata raised his hooves, prepared to bring them down in a blow which would destroy the creature once and for all.
The blow did not fall. Shrieking with terror, the monster with the face of iron and the crooked cross of fire on its breast turned and ran.
It did not run far. Something dropped out of the sky, landed behind the fleeing monster, and stood challenging the Saint Vladimir. It was something in the shape of a woman; something that might once have been a woman, perhaps not altogether displeasing to look upon, but now aged beyond her years, with fangs dripping blood and a cape stained with the gore of those she had devoured.
“Stop, foul Vladimir,” this creature cawed, with a voice that cracked icicles off the roofs and scraped furrows in the earth that bled oil. “Stop, man of evil, and unhand the fair maiden, whom you have so cruelly abducted.”
Saint Vladimir reined in mighty Armata and eyed the fanged woman, who stood with her arms spread wide, her cloak shielding the cowering iron-beast. “Who are you?” he enquired. “And why do you claim that I have abducted this woman, who came by her own accord to me, and begged my protection?”
“I did come to him,” the woman with the dress of blue and boots of yellow said, “and I did ask for his protection from the iron-faced monster there. It’s not true that he abducted me.”
But the fanged woman with the blood-soaked cloak ignored her. “I am Vavavoom,” she said, “who breaks the chains that hold helpless women captive, and sets them free. I. Vavavoom, have liberated women all over the world, and this girl in blue and yellow will be free of you, too. I sent my minion here to free her, but you seem to have defeated him. Not for long though, for I am here to avenge his defeat and set the woman free.”
“Is that so?” Saint Vladimir asked. “Where then are the maidens you have, as you said, freed? I can only see, in the distance, a row of women shackled by the hands and feet, cowering in cages while inhuman beasts with the eyes of fiends torment them. Surely they cannot be the women whom you claim you set free?” He paused a moment. “And whose blood is it that soaks your cloak, and is dried stiff on it?”
The fanged vampire called Vavavoom ignored his questions. “You are a force of evil,” she said, “and I am a force for good. Therefore my victory is inevitable. Give up this girl to me, and you may go – for now. Otherwise I shall destroy you.”
Now, as the world knows, Saint Vladimir was not a large man, but was immensely strong and brave as a tiger. He looked at the vampire and thought a moment. “Very well,” he said. “I shall come down from my mount, and meet you in single combat. If you win, and if you can take the woman, she goes with you. If I win, the women in cages behind you, whom you seem not to notice, shall be freed.” Swinging himself out of the saddle, he dropped to the ground, but motioned the maiden to stay where she was.
Seeing her plan thwarted, the vampire ground her fangs in rage. “So we must fight,” she said. “And when I defeat and destroy you, I shall take it all.”
“You will have to defeat and destroy me first,” said Saint Vladimir. Raising Topol M, he rushed at the vampire.
But the vampire was no longer there. She had jumped backwards, and was standing by the cages with the weeping women, her claws extended.
“Come no closer,” she hissed. “Or I will have my imps here tear these women to pieces, one at a time.”
Vladimir looked at the imps, and they leered back at him; creatures with severed heads hanging from their belts, their faces smeared with the blood of those whose hearts they had eaten after killing them. They leered at him and struck at the caged women, causing them to whimper in their agony and distress.
“Watch the women die, Vladimir,” they mocked him, in their voices repellent as the mud below a swamp. “Watch them die, and then we will watch you die, with great pleasure.”
“We shall see about that,” he replied. Leaping past the vampire, he raised his lance and drove it home, smashing one imp after another into the mud. The creatures wailed and screamed, and the demented shrieking of the vampire rose above them in cacophony.
Then, suddenly, all the imps were gone, and the Blessed Vladimir stood facing the vampire Vavavoom.
“You may have destroyed the imps,” Vavavoom whispered, her words like the wind from the north. “But I still have the women captive, and after I kill you I will bathe in their blood.”
“You will have to kill me first,” Vladimir said. “Even if you do succeed, you realise that the combat between us will cause so much damage that the women, and the rest of the world, may be ravaged so badly that there can be no victor?”
But the vampire did not respond to his question; with a fearsome scream, she leaped into the air and threw herself on the Saint Vladimir, her claws reaching out to destroy him.
Now, as always, Vladimir, who scorned armour, was clad down to his hips in the sky, in other words, he had nothing on above the waist at all. The vampire therefore might have imagined that her claws would tear him to pieces; but the Saint moved so quickly that all she did was claw at the empty air.
And then began a combat the likes of which the world has not seen. Vladimir kept moving, quickly and deftly, while the foul vampire threw herself at him, repeatedly, each time almost coming to grips with him and then missing at the last moment. Until there came a time when the evil being was finally totally exhausted, since she had had no opportunity to suck the blood of her captives to sustain herself. Then Vladimir saw that she was helpless, and raised his mighty Topol M to smash it into her breast and end her evil existence, once and for all.
But at the last moment he hesitated. As we all know, the Blessed Saint was as perspicacious as he was bold, as wise as formidable in the fight. And he realised that were he to strike the vampire with his lance, the spasms of the creature’s dying might destroy the caged maidens, who were watching the battle with desperate and piteous hope in their eyes.
“Go,” he said harshly. “Go, and never return to plague the world. Or I shall drive the tip of this lance through your heart, without regard of the consequences.”
“Very well,” snarled the vampire. “I go, but I shall return. Someday, when I have battened on fresh blood from my lair across the seas, I shall come back. And then I shall kill you all.” With a howl, she rose up into the air and flapped away.
“Come, ladies,” Vladimir said. “Cease wailing, for I have come to set you free. I know you have paid a terrible price, but rejoice, for you will never be chained again.” And he broke the cages, and struck the fetters from their hands and feet. Then, taking up Topol M, he strode back to where he had left Armata and the woman with the dress of blue and boots of grain yellow. And when he saw them, he stopped in surprise.
While the Saint Vladimir had been fighting the foul vampire Vavavoom, the monster with the face of iron and the crooked cross burning on its breast had not been idle. Seeing its chance, it had thrown itself on the maiden, thinking to steal her away and tear her to pieces while the blessed man was fighting elsewhere.
It had reckoned without the woman herself, and with Armata.
So when the Saint Vladimir returned, the shattered, mangled corpse of the monster lay under the feet of the mighty mount, Armata, and the girl with the dress of blue and boots of yellow sat triumphant on his back. And when she saw Vladimir, it was difficult to say who smiled with more glory on whom.
The sage Alassad came to the end of his tale. “The maiden and the saint lived side by side after that,” he said. “And the other women, who were saved from their cages, healed little by little. But it was a terrible time, and it took long, long for the world to recover.”
The King Bennet looked at the saint, and his face was like stone. “What about the vampire Vavavoom?” he asked. “What about that foul creature?”
The saint shook his hoary head. “No doubt the harridan still sucks the blood of the hapless people of her own land,” he said. “Someday, perhaps, if the blood she has sucked gives her back the strength, she shall return to wage war on the world again. But, hopefully, that day is still far.”
“Be it ever so far,” the king said, “we must prepare, as of this day. We must ensure that the victory the Saint Vladimir won is not thrown away due to our own carelessness.” And he rose to give the orders.
And, meanwhile, a blood-coloured cloud began to gather over a distant land across the western seas.
Times of trouble were coming.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015