I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin PART I THE LORD Of BAROVIA Prologue

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Ravenloft #19

Genres: Fantasy , Horror

736 Barovian Calendar, Mordentshire, Mordent

"Goodness me, Dr. Van Richten, another one of those dark books? How do you manage to sleep at night?"

Dr. Rudolph van Richten smiled gently at Mrs. Heywood and made a self-deprecating shrug by way of a reply.

"I'm sure it can't be healthy for you," she continued, but smiled as she wrote out their respective receipts for his purchase, one for him, one for her records. She had a careful round hand and took pride that every letter and number should be easy to discern. It also took a bit of time, but on slow days such as this it gave her ample opportunity to gossip with her customers. Dr. Van Richten was a particular favorite with her, and she always made a point of bestowing a little extra effort upon him. Sometimes he would share the most amazing stories of his many journeys in the world, which were very welcome, since she had not seen much of it after setting up her modest book business in Mordentshire some twenty-five years ago.

Just as she was about to ask if he had any future plans for travel, a man pushed through her shop door setting the little bell above to ringing. "Welcome, sir," she said. "If you need help, you've only to ask."

He merely grunted in response. Both Van Richten and Mrs. Heywood made a study of the newcomer, who was rather a surprise.

Dr. Van Richten was typical of most of her clientele, a scholarly sort, well-mannered, more interested in older, esoteric books in languages she had never heard than in anything new. This other fellow was big and loutish looking, dressed for a long journey rather than the paved streets of a city. His clothes were of thick wool and leather, worn and travel-stained. He carried dust-caked leather saddlebags over one shoulder, and they looked heavy. He turned suddenly, surprising them in their stare. There was a haunted, guarded look in his red-rimmed ice-blue eyes.

"You buy books?" he demanded of Mrs. Heywood.

"That's what the sign out front says."

He grunted again, then proceeded to browse among the shelves in the corner farthest from her front counter.

The widow Heywood's book shop, (New and Vintage Tomes for the Discerning Reader - Buy and Sell) tucked away on its seedy, but still respectable street, was not the sort to command attention from the city's more refined shoppers, though those who knew of it often came by. Off the main thoroughfare, its leaded diamond-shaped front windows lent it a closed appearance, but the door was always open to anyone curious enough to bother giving it a push. Not many like this rough-looking stranger had ever bothered. He was as out of place as a plow horse at a racing meet.

Still watching the new man, Van Richten responded to her comment. "How can the search for knowledge be detrimental to one's health?" he asked. "I sit by a nice fire in the winter as comfortable as can be or an open window in the summer to take the air, and do a bit of reading between calls from patients."

She smiled and waggled her quill pen at him in a teasing manner. "Don't try fooling me, sir. Everyone's seen how you'll shut your practice down at a moment's notice or less, then off you go with a bang for months at a time to who knows where, coming back all worn and wasted. I'm the only one who's observed that some of your mysterious trips happen right after you've bought a book from me."

He chuckled. "Not true, I was in the other week and took home several of your excellent volumes, and here I am still."

"Ah, but those were all about herbs and healing, not one of these dark books - like this one." She nodded at the small edition that lay on the counter between them. It was about legends and lore, containing stories about nasty creatures and other things Mrs. Heywood would rather not think about.

"Hardly dark, my dear lady, in fact, it has rather a pretty cover." The book was distinctive indeed, with its pale tan leather wrapping. The title, in lettering that was not native to Mordent, was stamped into it with real gold leaf, though time and use had caused much of it to be worn away.

"Roses are also pretty, but famous for their thorns," she wryly reminded him.

"And some of these books don't half give me nightmares."

"Only because you're sensitive to the magical energy some of them have obviously been exposed to. You don't actually have to be in a fire for your clothes to smell of wood smoke."

"Magic!" she said, and gave a little ladylike shudder.

"Nothing to be afraid of. It's just another tool, like a hammer. You only have to know how to correctly use it so as not to hurt yourself or others."

"Then I'll leave that for other people, thank you very much. I want no truck with magical books."

"You likely won't. True magical tomes are extremely rare and almost always traded exclusively between those who have trained in their use."

"There's a relief. I just wish I wasn't as sensitive to it like as you say."

"It's annoying, but it won't hurt you. For you it's about the same as for people who get a rash from eating strawberries. Besides, because of your reaction you've often been able to separate ordinary books from the extraordinary, have you not?"

"Indeed, and they fetch ever so much more coin. If it weren't for them I'd have lost my shop and gone to the poor home years ago."

"So there's a 'silver' lining to that cloud, so to speak."

She chuckled and nodded at this, then sobered, cocking her head entreatingly.

"But my nightmares... ?"

"You read the books don't you? I suggest you break off doing that."

"Oh, but I can't! Otherwise how will I tell who might find it of interest? There's many that I've sent your way for knowing what they were about."

"True, and I do appreciate it. Perhaps - if your nightmares persist - you can come by and I'll fix you up with a nice herbal tea you can take at bedtime. I'd also suggest you not read these kinds of stories just before retiring."

The other customer, who was presently giving hard study to some housekeeping books, cleared his throat. He made it sound impatient.

Van Richten leaned close to whisper, "I'm not sure I care for the look of that fellow. Do you want me to stay?"

Mrs. Heywood considered the offer, then shook her head. "I shall be fine, I know his sort, and they're harmless to me."


"Indeed. He's got books to sell and is shy about it."

"Why should he be shy?"

"Because the poor man probably can't read."

"Oh, dear."

"So you run along and - "

"If you're sure?"

"Thank you for your concern, but I'll be fine." She made shooing motions.

Dr. Van Richten, his own purchase tucked in the pocket of his coat, reluctantly took his leave.

The other man had apparently been waiting for this, but made no immediate move toward the front counter. Mrs. Heywood patiently picked up her latest knitting project, a striped scarf, and prepared to work on it until he was ready to talk to her. It was all part of the game of buying and selling. Neither party dared show too much eagerness lest it adversely effect the price of the product. Mrs.

Heywood was very good player.

The man finally replaced the book he had been pretending to flip through - he had been holding it upside down until finding a page with pictures on it - and made his way to her front counter.

She gave him her cheeriest smile. "Yes, good sir, how may I help you?"

He dropped the leather saddlebags onto the counter, sending up a cloud of dust.

"You must do a lot of traveling," she said, trying hard not to sneeze.

"How d'ya know that?" he demanded suspiciously.

Oh, dear, he's not too terribly bright, is he? she thought, covering the thought with a bigger smile as she put the knitting to one side. "Only because you have the air of a man of the world, of someone who's been away to interesting places." To judge by the aroma coming from his clothing, his recent travels had not taken him near any bath houses or laundries.

"Int'restin' is the word for it, all right," he growled. "I seen plenty."

"Indeed? I suppose when one travels one also collects souvenirs - " she gave the saddlebag a significant look, hoping he would take the opening.


"Mementos of one's trip... to remind one of the places one's been."

"You don't talk half funny, lady. Who's this 'one' yer on about?"

"I was just speaking figuratively."


She put on a brave smile and nodded at the saddlebags. "You asked if I buy books. Might I inquire as to whether you have any you wish to sell?" She mentally crossed her fingers, hoping that the words "buy" and "sell" had made an impression upon him. Apparently so, for he fixed her with a gap-toothed grin.

"I might, I just might 'ave somethin'."

"Indeed? May I see?" She made no move toward the bag, not wanting to dirty her fingers. She also had the impression that if she had tried, he'd have grabbed it away.

He gave her a long, piercing stare, then broke away from the counter to look out the windows. The street that she had watched day in and out for the last quarter century was still very much in place, lined with other small shops and their customers, as ordinary as it could possibly be.

He snarled at the sight like a restive bear, then rounded on her. " 'Ow much you give for a book?"

She couldn't believe he'd said anything so simplistic, but covered her disbelief with another smile. "That all depends on the book."

"What d'ya mean?"

"Different books fetch different prices, same as anything else."

"Oh, yeah?" He didn't sound convinced.

"I'll put it this way: you'd pay more for a trained horse in its prime than for an elderly pony, now, wouldn't you?"

"'Less I could steal it 'nstead," he said with a laugh. Mrs. Heywood did not join him in his fit of merriment, and he shut it off quick. "What I mean - that is - "

"You have a book to sell?" she kindly prompted.

"Right, tha's it. I found it. It don't belong to no one but me. That is, I found it when my gran passed on, very sad I was."

"My condolences. Perhaps if you'd let me see it I can judge whether it might be of interest to my customers."

"Yeah, right, comin' up." He opened the bag and drew forth from his collection of battered camp gear a fair sized cloth-covered bundle tied up with string.

Laying the rectangular shape on the counter before her, he cut the string with his belt knife and pulled the cloth wrapping away, revealing a thick volume. But even before that happened Mrs. Heywood felt a distinct chill closing over her.

Another dark book. She looked at it, her heart beating very fast, then took a deep steadying breath to try to quell her nerves.

Its leather cover had once been red in color, but age had deepened it to a rusty brown. You could only judge the original shade by bits of it trapped in the cracks of its spine.

Like dried blood, she thought, and firmly suppressed the shudder that wanted to take her.

"Well?" he asked. "Bet that's worth a lot. Bet you never seen nothin' like it."

"I can't say that I have." She put forth a cautious finger and lifted the cover to read the title. She studied it for a very long time, biting her lower lip before giving the man a sharp look. "Where did you really get this?"

"I said my gramp - I mean gran - died and - "

"Save it for someone else, laddie," she said, her voice low and quick. "When it comes down to it, I don't care how you got it, but I do want to know where. The more you can tell me, the better."

"For the price you'll give me?"

"Maybe, but it has to be the truth."

He grimaced. "Well, I was up away in Barovia y'see - "

"Barovia!" She caught her breath and her heart gave a leap. "That far?"

"Oh, aye, I was doin' a bit of guard work for one of the nobles there, had himself a nice little castle until he - well, I'll just say he wasn't so good at keeping up with his taxes and he fetched up on the wrong end of a spear when his liege lord was settlin' their differences in the accountin'."

"Oh, my."

"Fair gave me a turn when one minute he's going all la-de-da an' puttin' on airs with the other nobles, and the next thing y'know, his head's on a pike with a real surprised expression fixed to his face. When that happened I says to myself, 'Milos, it's time move on, an' the quicker the better.'"

"But where did the book - "

"I'm gettin' to that. The truth is, I never got my last bit of pay. So instead of waitin' for his survivors - not sure if there were any, come to think of it - to set things to right, I thought it best to just take my pay in goods an' leave."

"I see."

"A lot of the other fellows did the same," he said in a defensive tone.

"Go on."

"The pickin's was slim, an' about all that was left was some trinkets and this here book. I've sold the trinkets since, but this book has me flummoxed. I asked around, an' someone said you'd give me a fair price."

"They told you correctly. I will give you a very fair price, but I'll have to study it first."

"Study it?"

"My dear man, you don't buy a horse without checking its teeth, do you?"

"I suppose not," he reluctantly admitted. "But - "

"And I assure you that the contents of this book are not like a tankard of ale to be gone with the drinking. A good book generally becomes more valuable after it's been read."

Milos gave a mighty frown as if having trouble digesting her information. "How valuable?"

"I can tell you that after I'm done."

"All right," he said after considerable grimacing, which was apparently an aid to his thought processes. "Read it then." He stood back and crossed his arms, waiting.

"This will take awhile. Perhaps several hours."

"I thought maybe I could watch you read, an' maybe see how to do it myself."

"That is a very admirable aspiration, but unhappily one doesn't learn reading in that manner. Were it true, I'd have many more customers."

"Oh." He seemed quite let down.

"But I've a suggestion for you on how to pass the time. There is a very reasonable victuals shop at the end of the street. Many - er - gentlemen in a similar line of work as yourself gather there to socialize. Perhaps you might even hear of another noble needing to fill a vacancy in his guards."

"Oh, well, that's fair kind of you to mention it, ma'am. An' now that it's been mentioned I am feeling pretty hollow on the inside. But I shouldn't like to leave my property behind."

"Goodness me, what am I going to do with it? Run away?"

Milos eventually admitted that it wasn't a likely action for her to take.

"You'll keep good care of it?"

"The best," she promised.

He finally removed his saddlebags from her counter and left, not without a few backward glances - and nearly bowled over Dr. Van Richten who was coming into the shop again.

"Excuse me!" said Van Richten, giving the appearance of being flustered by their near collision.

Milos grunted with mild disgust and left the shop, shutting the door behind him with more force than was probably necessary. The moment he was out of sight Mrs.

Heywood whisked out a dusting cloth and put it to swift use. Her workplace in order again, she now faced Van Richten squarely. She realized, much to her consternation, that he had his back to her. He was peering out the window, apparently following the progress of her latest customer.

"Forgive me, Mrs. Heywood, but I seem to have forgotten my receipt," he said abstractedly, not turning around.


Van Richten straightened after a moment. "Is there something amiss?"

She shook her head at his show of innocence. "I know very well that you left it on purpose to have an excuse to return."

He produced a rueful smile in response. "Indeed, I did. Guilty as charged, good lady. It's only that I had a feeling I should see what he was up to."

"Smelling wood smoke, were you?"

"You might say that." He looked at the book on her counter as a starving man might at a fresh loaf of bread. He started to reach for it, but checked himself.

"May I?"

Sensing a quick turnover sale in the air, she nodded. "Of course."

He spun the book sideways, allowing them both to study the title. The lettering was very ornate and old, of a style that had been in brief use in Barovia some fifty years earlier, brief because it was so ornate as to be nearly impossible to read. Van Richten opened the cover. The inside script, on a different kind of paper, was much more legible, with lines of firm black ink marching across the pages. Not from a printer's press, but real handwriting. Its style was of a quite unique sort and very puzzling to her.

There were unbound pages as well. The paper was very thin and fine, as was the nib of the pen used, but, the handwriting was the same. It was as though the writer had put those in after the binding, and at first glance they did seem to be addendums to the main text. Van Richten read aloud the first of them from the very front of the book:

I , Strahd of Barovia, well aware that certain events of my reign have been erroneously recorded as "history," do hearby set down an exact record concerning my war with Azalin of Darkon. Many versions of what happened exist, and all are inaccurate over one point or another, but this is the one true accounting of...

He stopped and swallowed, having gone very pale.

"What is it, Doctor?" she demanded, shaken at his reaction. He was always so cheerful and confident, and to see him like this was most alarming.

He took command of himself and tapped a finger lightly against the page. There was an earnest light in his eyes. "I should like to hear your professional opinion about this book's characteristics."

Slightly taken aback, she nonetheless rose to the occasion. "Well, for a start, the penmanship looks to be from a period some four centuries past, yet I would judge the paper to be not more than a hundred and fifty years old."

"Yes, yes, please go on."

She held the book up in such a way as to let light shine behind a single page.

"There, see that? I'm right on the dating. It's a Barovian paper maker's watermark from that time."

"How would you account for the combination of these elements?"

"It seems obvious that someone's taken an old Barovian diary and slapped a new cover on it about fifty years ago. But the puzzle is how anyone who learned to write some four centuries past was able to put that writing on such relatively new paper."

"You've an idea, though?"

"A disappointing one, sir."

"Which is - ?"

"This book is a forgery."

Instead of disappointed, Van Richten looked, if anything, quite taken with the prospect. He was all but quivering, like a hunting dog catching a scent. "A forgery?"

"So it would seem, but why would anyone bother to forge a diary? And do such a clumsy job of it? Even an apprentice bookseller would be able to spot this one."

"Perhaps it was meant to draw attention," he murmured.

"But whose attention?"

"Who, indeed?"

She shot him an annoyed look, disliking it when people answered a question with a question, then studied the pages again. "The language is an old one, I find the phrasing rather hard to follow. Whoever did the forging made a thorough job of it, but they botched it on the age of the paper."

"Perhaps," he said, sounding abstracted again.

"What do you know that I don't?" she demanded.

"Um?" He broke away from reading the text and blinked at her.

"You know something about this book, don't you?"

"Not really, but I should very much like to find out more. Might I borrow it for the day and look it over? I'll bring it back first thing in the morning. I can promise you right now that I want to buy it, I just don't have the coin with me."

Now this was very atypical behavior even for the quietly eccentric doctor. "It's not that I don't trust you, sir, but I can hardly allow you to take it from the shop. It was left with me in good faith, and until I buy it from that man I can hardly sell it to you."

"Oh, yes, of course," he said, his initial excitement visibly dampened.

"Besides, I have to look it over to set a fair price on it..." but she could see he wasn't really listening. "Doctor?"

"Perhaps you'll allow me to read it here, then?"

"Here? The whole thing?"

"I should be very quiet."

"I don't doubt it, but why are you in such a hurry?"

He gave her his self-depreciating shrug again. "Call it the passion of a collector, madam."

She didn't believe that one, but was willing to let him get away with it. "Well, the truth be told, I want to have a read of it as well, and you seem to have a better command of the old language than I do. What if I closed the shop up for the rest of the day and you read this book to me? That way we both get what we want."

"I have serious reservations that you would want to hear what is in this tome.

It could give you more nightmares."

"In which case I shall avail myself of some of your herbal teas," she smoothly returned.

"You'll lose the afternoon's business," he stated, sounding hopeful.

"It's always slow during this day of the week. I'll likely lose nothing. I'm determined to know what is in this mystery volume."

Van Richten finally sighed and nodded. "Very well, but afterwards please refrain from telling me that you weren't warned."

"Warned against what? A few nightmares? I think I can survive them. Now if you would be so kind as to move those two chairs to the table over there, I'll lock up so we won't be disturbed."

Van Richten obliged her request while she took a brass key from her apron pocket and secured the shop door. She then closed the curtains and bustled into the rear of the premises for a moment, returning more slowly. She carried a large, beautifully carved crystal lamp and gently placed it in the center of the table.

"My dear departed mother's prized possession," she explained, when Van Richten offered a compliment on it. "One cannot be too careful in this neighborhood, so I always keep it in the back. It gives a very good bright light, though, some trick of the way the crystal was fashioned."

"Excellent," he said. "If this book is indeed about grim topics, then it is not one to be read amongst the shadows."

Mrs. Heywood paused as she worked to coax a flame from her tinderbox. She didn't like his ominous tone, but refused to let herself be discouraged. She got the lamp lit, adjusted the height of the flame, and sat next to him. "What sort of grim topics?"

"There's but one way to find out," he said, and turned to the first page.

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