In the tumbled masses of the Balkan mountains, many trails cross and recross the sharp-edged rocks. The trails curl perilously over precipices, around the knife-edge slopes of crag after crag . . . but the dour-faced men and women who live in those lands negotiate the paths as if they were as safe as Park Avenue, New York.
All except one.
Though over a century has passed since that one trail became infamous, the men and women of Montenegro still avoid it, crossing themselves fearfully whenever they come near it.
It’s almost as if Grigor Anzach were still alive—Grigor and his bloody band of thieves, still on the prowl for riches and ransom, still hunting boldly and horribly for young girls. . .
Like Maria Dvora, for instance.
Maria was seventeen, the daughter of a small-town merchant in a Montenegrin village. A slim, straight girl with corn-blonde hair, she'd had a good many propositions and even a few proposals from the local young men, but she'd turned all of them down, almost without hesitation. She had her eye on the Mayor’s son, a boy of nineteen named Igno Arvier. Igno had given her no more than a glance, but Maria wasn't going to give up easily. He was handsome, he was rich, he was everything a young girl might want . . . and Maria knew she was pretty enough, and wise enough, to have a fair chance at winning his hand in marriage.
Her chance came at last. One afternoon he came into her father’s shop while the old man was out pricing some raw leather at the other end of town. Igno had come merely to pick up some supplies for his own horses.
But before he left he'd made a date with Maria. He was to meet her that night at the very edge of town, in a predetermined spot.
He waited for her over an hour, but she never arrived. Igno muttered something or other about the fickleness of women, and was heading home when he met Maria’s father. Fedor Dvora had come out looking for the girl.
It took Igno a few minutes to realize that Maria hadn't stood him up. She had actually disappeared. Her father was almost hysterical pleading that something be done, anything, to get the girl back.
Within an hour, men had been roused, torches lit, search parties sent out. Igno and Maria’s father were both with the party that finally found the girl four hours later, lying on a trail half a mile from the town.
She was absolutely naked.
And a note lay next to her, a black scrawl on cheap, fuzzy paper. A note that was a snarl of brutal defiance:
“You can have the girl back now, townsmen. We're through with her.”
Maria was dead—but that, even in the first seconds, wasn't the important thing. What was important, and horrible, and all too obvious, was the way she had died.
The marks on her naked body told a story that was plain to all the shocked group who found her. They hardly needed the note to tell them who had abducted Maria Dvora. The name was whispered from one of the men to another: “Grigor Anzach.”
They already knew about Grigor. In a very short time, the black haired, hard-jawed maniac had become better-known than anyone else in Montenegro.
Grigor and his men had dragged the poor girl into a cave somewhere among the mountains— but where? The trails crisscrossed like a spider’s web. There were hundreds of caves. It might be a month’s work to find the one where Grigor Anzach and his men lived.
The villagers could almost hear her screams, as the clothing was ripped from her, as the men assaulted her, one after the other while she shrieked and wept and tried to fight them. The men could almost see the filthy hands of Grigor’s men on her, forcing her down, clawing at the youth of her body.
After a time she would nearly stop struggling. After a time she would be weak, her screams and tears spent. The men would have satisfied themselves, and perhaps she had begun, simply, to pray for death.
After what had been done to her, perhaps death seemed like a friend, like the only way of erasing her pain and her terrible shame.
But she was not to have her wish easily.
Grigor Anzach had other desires, too. And it was these other wants that had left the marks of blood on the girl’s body.
Maria had been beaten with leather straps, beaten all over her unprotected, bruised body. She must have fainted two or three times under the lashing punishment—and when it was over the longing for death must have been the only real thought left in her pain-crazed mind. The men ringing her body, there on the dark trail, could almost see her staring, pleading eyes, her mouth pulled op in one long shriek of terrible agony as the leather whips continued to rain down, as her body jerked in pain. . . .
Then they had used the knives to cut and mark her.
It had taken Maria Dvora a long time to die.
Muttering, the men picked up the body and the note, and began slow march back to the village.
Maria would be buried, the church would have prayers said for her.
And then . . . well, they asked themselves, what was there to do? Grigor Anzach and his men might just as well have made a pact with the Devil. Some of the men believed he had done just that.
Certainly there was nothing mere band of mortal townsfolk could do against him.
How had he begun?
None of the villagers knew for sure. He had appeared, as if out of nowhere, one morning when the sun was just coming up, one morning in the late crisp fall. Circled by four men, he had come sauntering down the hillside toward a farmer saddling up his horse for a trip into town.
The farmer had been carrying some gold to make monthly purchases.
Grigor, smiling, took the gold. His four henchmen waited for the farmer to resist. They were carrying clubs and crude knives.
The farmer didn't resist. Eyeing the weapons, he surrendered his gold, and the men let him live. There was no fun in killing an old man.
And Grigor had introduced himself, before he faded back into the mountains with his men.
“I'm Grigor Anzach,” he had said. "Call me a tax collector, townsman. And tell the others hereabouts my name—because I'll be back.”
Of course, the townsfolk had hunted for him—but Grigor left no traces, none that they could find. And then he had come again. This time it wasn't gold he took, but provisions, stolen from a bar in the dead of night, while all honest folk slept.
He'd left his first note in that barn.
“Thanks for the tax payment," it read. “I'll be back.”
It was signed with his name.
Of course, there were rumors. There had once been a farm named Anzach in a town forty miles away over the mountains. Perhaps they had sired this casual thief, this boastful robber who could get away with anything.
And perhaps not . . . perhaps Grigor Anzach wasn't even the man’s real name. They had a good description of him from the farmer who'd been his first victim. But no one recognized a man with Grigor’s looks.
Men, even then, said: “He was sent by the devil.”
But few believed that—until they found the first of Grigor’s little “playmates,” the first of the girls he had used, and tortured, and killed.
Once, they even had a witness, a witness who had seen a story straight from Hell, and had come back, babbling, white-faced, insane with grief and shock, to tell the tale.
Stepan Dolmetsch and his new bride Anna had been visiting her mother and father that evening, and they had come home late, in the darkness. They'd thought themselves safe from Grigor Anzach, though they were on foot, walking the road that curved round the edge of the town. Grigor’s men attacked single women, and Stepan felt he could defend Anna and himself against the hordes of Hell.
But Grigor and four men had come out of the darkness, taking them by surprise. Stepan had been knocked unconscious during the fight; the last sight he had seen had been Anna’s face, distorted with terror, as she screamed at him to help. . . .
“And when I awoke,” Stepan said, “I was in the cave. I don't even know—where it is, or how to get there. They must have carried me. . .
He was tied to a wall of the place, which was lit by smoky torches. Grigor sat crosslegged on the stone floor, and the four men stood at the back. But they weren't watching Stepan.
Instead, their eyes were fastened greedily on Anna, who was tied to the opposite wall!
She was moaning softly, her eyes closed in pain, the track of tears reddening her face.
She was completely naked!
Stepan watched with wide eyes. “Let her go!” he screamed. “She will say nothing. . ."
“Let her go?” The voice was calm and flat, Grigor’s voice. His eyes glittered. “We will return her to the village, townsman,” Grigor said, “when we are through with her.”
Stepan knew what that meant.
“But—you can't! I'll kill you, I'll—”
“You will do nothing whatever,” Grigor said casually. “For one thing, you are tied. For another—well, you will see.” He made a gesture with one hand.. The men moved toward Anna.
Stepan screamed at them, cursed, threatened, pleaded. But nothing made any difference. He wished for unconsciousness, for something to blot out the sight of his bride, shrinking in her bonds from the advancing men. . . .
But he stayed awake, his eyes riveted on horror.
The torment began.
Anna was released from her bondage and flung helpless to the floor. Weakly, still moaning, she tried to rise, but one of the men pinned her down. Now she shrieked for help: “Stepan . . . Stepan!”
The man pulled at his bonds, feeling the blood flow from his wrists. But he was tied tightly. Through a mist of rage and terror he saw the man who had pinned Anna down, saw him move over her naked body, saw his bride struggle madly now. . . .
And then there was another man!
The only prayer Stepan had left was a prayer for death . . . his own death, if he could but take some of the sadists with him.
But death didn't come.
The men were finished at last. Now there seemed no strength left in Anna, who lay exhausted, stained and bruised on the stone floor of the cave. Her mouth was open, and she was moaning gently, moaning without words.
Stepan was silent in horror, dazed by what he had seen.
And now Grigor stood up, for the first time.
“My pleasure in women,” he said quietly, “is of a different sort.”
And before the horrified eyes of Stepan he drew one of the smoking torches from the wall and advanced toward the moaning figure of Stepan’s bride.
Anna screamed once before the licking flames touched her body. She writhed away, but Grigor followed her with the brand, poking it at her, searching out the most tender spots on her abused body while she shrieked madly for release. Over and over she called Stepan’s name, and Stepan found himself pulling at his bonds, his eyes wide, his own mouth open in an insane string of curses and threats. . . .
Every time Anna tried to rise Grigor prodded at her with the flaming brand and she screamed again with the pain of the fire and sank back. Her flesh was blackened with its burns, her muscles quivered involuntarily with continuing pain, and still the torment continued.
And Grigor began to laugh, a savage, insane laugh that rang through the cave, over her screams and Stepan’s. Once again he moved toward the struggling, tormented girl with his rod of fire. . . .
At last Anna fainted. Stepan somehow remained conscious to watch, knowing that only more torment awaited the girl he had married. For Grigor never let a girl go while life remained in her body.
After a time she awoke. She moved once on the stone floor, and screamed. Anna, too, knew the torment that awaited her. . . .
Grigor had set the brand back in its socket against the wall. Now, instead, he came forward with a leather strap. . . .
The electric sound of that strap landing on female flesh, the pitiful mad shrieks of Anna, echoed for hours in Stepan’s ears. The strap beat at the girl’s body, curling round her, searing the portions already burned by Grigor’s torment.
And Grigor laughed insanely as he continued to rain lashes down on the defenseless body of Stepan's bride. . . .
Stepan could hear Anna calling his name, more and more weakly. He could see her struggles growing less, the twitching of her muscles under the torture diminishing slowly.
She was dead, and Stepan could only give thanks that, at last, she was out of the power of the fiend who stood cackling over her.
The men shuffled forward and took her body away.
Grigor, meanwhile, stepped up to Stepan.
“Have you enjoyed my little show?” he asked silkily.
Stepan had no voice left, almost no mind left from what he had witnessed. He could only stare dumbly, with a horrible hatred, at the face of this monster.
“We will send you back to tell about it,” Grigor said. “We will send you back to describe how Grigor Anzach treats women—as a woman should be treated.”
Stepan whispered one word. “Why . . . ?”
Grigor's smile became a snarl. “Why, Grigor’s mother left him to starve on a hillside,” the monster said in a thin, flat voice. “Grigor lived as he could, collected friends as he could. It was a woman who left Grigor to die. And it is on all women that Grigor takes his revenge.”
The cave seemed to whirl. Stepan saw blackness, heard the whisper of a voice . . . and nothing more. He had, at last, fainted.
When he awakened, he was lying on a trail, with the body of Anna beside him.
He struggled to his feet, wild-eyed, staring, and headed down the trail, toward help, toward humanity.
A search party found him halfway up. He tried to tell them what had happened, but he found himself weeping and trembling. It took two days before he could talk at all, and longer than that before he seemed rational.
And in the meantime the search for Grigor Anzach’s cave went on. The townsfolk knew the search was hopeless, but they continued it. Perhaps God would be good to them and allow them to stamp out the devil who had preyed on their gold, their provisions, their women.
They had the whole horrible story now, from Stepan Dolmetsch. Some believed the tale Grigor had told. Others said:
“It is no more than an excuse, a fanciful tale. He tortures, he kills, because he is possessed of a devil— there need be no other reason.” But the motive wasn't important. The only important thing was trapping Grigor Anzach, stopping his raids and his terror.
The weeks dragged on—and it seemed to the townsfolk as if God had turned away His face from the village. For Grigor’s raids continued as winter slowly crept on, and the cave remained hidden.
Another girl was found, this one not quite dead. But she could only repeat, over and over: “No more . . . please, don't hurt me ... no more . . .”
Broken, bleeding, she died in the arms of her father—one more victim of the monster.
And then, a week later, another woman was found. . . .
She was the last. For Grigor Anzach’s career of horror ended two nights later. Exactly what happened, exactly what words and what actions took place, no one will ever know. But even today the villagers tell the story, the basic outline of how the monster met his end.
And, as they curse the name of Grigor Anzach, every villager remembers with reverence the name of Stepan Dolmetsch, who rid them of the devil.
Stepan only wanted one thing in life: the death of Grigor and his men. What he had to pay for it didn't matter. It took him several days to evolve, but once he had an idea he followed it through grimly and steadily.
Every night he walked around the edge of town, carrying a small sack of gold.
One night passed, and then another, and Grigor’s men didn't show up.
Then, walking as if he were heading somewhere fearfully, the third night, Stepan heard a rustle in the reeds that bordered the path. He ignored the sound, kept walking, waited . . .
The rustle grew, and Grigor and his men surrounded Stepan.
Grigor smiled. “It is the man for whom we gave a show,” he said.
For the first time Stepan noticed that the others were holding a girl.
Stepan acted terror-stricken. “You can't . . .” he whispered.
“You shall see,” Grigor said, and gestured. One of the men raised an arm . . .and Stepan tasted unconsciousness once again.
When he awoke the girl was screaming.
Two of the men had already had her, and the others waited their turn. There was stark horror in the eyes of the violated girl, terror, shame and fear in her gasps and screams. Stepan was tied to the wall again, his eyes watching the same scene in the flickering torchlight.
“You hurt helpless girls!” he shrieked over the girl’s agonized sounds. “You wouldn't dare to try hurting a man. . . .”
Grigor turned, his teeth bared in a smile. “Are you defying me?"
“I will stand against your firebrands, against your whips,” Stepan said. “You would not dare to try a torment on a man....”
“Would I not?” Grigor snarled. “You have no interest for me—except as an audience for my little show. Look, now—” he gestured.
The girl’s screams rose, covered by the grunts of one of Grigor’s men.
“She dislikes this treatment,” Grigor said. “But soon she will beg for it, beg for no more than a man covering her—when my flames cover her. ...”
The girl shrieked in pain. The man pressed down upon her. . . .
“Your flames frighten me not,” Stepan said stubbornly. “Do you think I would scream? Do you think you can make me beg?”
“You?” Grigor laughed. “In seconds, townsman. Watch—”
Stepan held his breath. Grigor rose and jerked a flaming torch from the wall. He came forward.
None of the townsfolk had any doubts about the location of Grigor Anzach’s cave. Not after the explosion that lit up the cave-mouth and blew everything inside it to tatters.
Stepan had sewn dynamite inside his clothing. The torch touched him —and Grigor Anzach and his men were no more.
The cave is empty now, the charred scraps of bodies cleaned out and buried. But the townsfolk still avoid it. The townsfolk still speak in hushed voices of Grigor Anzach and his mission of revenge against all women, of Stepan Dolmetsch and his terror and heroism.