The Countess was up at dawn as a golden hue enveloped the sky. She had picked out her best clothes, a skirt decorated with silver lace and her petticoat trimmed with silver-gilt stitches. While she was putting on her pearl necklace, there was a knock on her bedchamber door.
Frederick stood outside her room solemnly holding a letter.
“Lieutenant Alexandra left at dawn,” said Frederick.
He extended his arm, but the Countess insisted he read the letter to her.
Frederick read aloud:
I must leave for Vienna. I have immensely enjoyed my stay at Castle Adnarim. Our time together has been memorable.
Sincerely Lieutenant Christoff Alexandra.
Anger pierced her heart. “He hasn’t mentioned when he will return.”
She knew he wouldn’t return, just like all the others. She walked away in a huff.
The Countess opened the front door to two new parcels. She helped Frederick carry them inside, fumigating their contents before touching them.
She spent the entire morning marveling at the emerald lantern clock with a brass dial, large bell and decorative fretwork. But she was most impressed with the archery set, the new bow that she had custom made with a burnished deep red Rosewood, and the arrow’s head and nock were made of gold.
The Countess spent the remainder of the day with her wooden archery set. She gripped the arrow, extended the bow and regularly hit the target. She fell into a reverie imagining it was Christoff that stood in the place of the target and she aggressively aimed the arrow at him, penetrating his heart, piercing him to his death. Her mouth curled up with delight.
As darkness descended, the Countess listened to the savage wind while she lay in bed; the shutters rattled and the chamber was filled with a chill. She fell into a fearful slumber.
She stood on a busy road, watching people walking by her; they were gaunt, pale, and with thin sickly frames. They trembled with a burning fever as they drew nearer to her; she felt surrounded by their fits of coughing. She looked with horror onto their swollen heads as they grabbed her hair and poked her limbs. She heard their discordant tongues, their pangs of fury and anguished pleas.
The Countess woke drenched in perspiration and her limbs trembled.
The Countess had instructed Frederick to prepare her bath at dawn, but Frederick had fallen ill again and therefore the Countess had to prepare her own bath. She shut all the curtains; the light would aggravate the throbbing migraine that always ensued her nightmares.
The darkened room was filled with perfumes: bowls with grains of musk and jasmine flowers. She removed her silk bathrobe and climbed into the tub; the warmth of the water enveloped her skin. For a moment she felt peace.
But as she glanced down at the rim of the bath, her breath grew erratic. Tiny creatures crawled on the edge of her bathtub. She reached for a brush and squashed them, but one of the creatures fell into the water, frantically moving its long legs. She poked at it, trying to pull it out with the brush. But when she reached for the candle by the tub to better see where the creature had crawled to, the water was clear and there was no sign of the squashed arachnids. It had been the shadows of her imagination.
It was not until the late afternoon that the Countess’ migraine had gone. She’d heard someone knocking on the door in the morning with a delivery but had felt too unwell to answer. She opened the front door to a bright afternoon sunlight. Squinting, she brought the parcel inside, fumigated it thoroughly. The parcel contained a fencing foil with an intricately etched handle. It was made in Spain.
She held the fencing foil up and stood with one foot forward and the other back on the damp grass. Frederick was feeling better and obeyed the Countess’ instruction to join her. His hand wobbled as he held the foil.
“En garde,” said the Countess. She advanced towards Frederick, who retreated with anxiety.
The dark night descended; the Countess’ blade shone in the moonlight.
At dinnertime, Frederick vanished, she suspected he’d returned to the castle to prepare the meal.
The Countess roamed amongst the barren trees, the decaying leaves at her feet, and an odor of dampness filled the garden. She stopped at a tall oak tree with its twisted branches; the cool breeze stroked her skin.
But when she heard footsteps behind her, she quickly turned and was surrounded by three people whose shadows took unusual shapes. A man stood before her with a long-nose mask, dressed in white; he jumped around like a fool. The man on her left wore a bright-colored, tattered uniform and his face was concealed with a flesh-colored mask, he stood with his chest out, picking up his knees high as he walked around her. A short, scrawny man stood on her right with red and black attire, a flowing cape, and a black mask with a hooked beak.
“Frederick!” she called.
Frederick quickly appeared. “They’re the performers from the Commedia dell’arte,” he said.
“Get me away from people!” the Countess cried.
The Countess began to perspire, grew dizzy and fell to the ground.
The Countess woke with a feeling of melancholy and angst and did so for the many mornings that followed. And as the year passed, silver hair had encroached upon her temples and creases had appeared on her forehead. One day as she sat at her desk in the tower, hand resting on her poems, peering at the dark clouds as they shifted in the sky, she grew nervous. A cloud appeared in the shape of a demon, with two hollow eyes and its mouth full of jagged teeth.
“Frederick!” she called. When there was no answer, she began to worry.
But as she looked down at the pile of poems that she had written, she knew that Frederick, William, the two thieves, Christoff and the performers from the Commedia dell’arte were all imagined: they were the trickery of her senses, imagined through shadows and shapes she had seen, muses for her poetry.
She grimaced as she thought of what she had really endured. Frederick had died a year before the plague, but she never trusted anyone to replace him. Christoff had been a young man that hadn’t loved her, and she had seen many performances of the Commedia dell’arte, their sinister masks always leaving her terrified. The Countess had missed her brother William and often imagined his ghost.
Outside the castle a horse whinnied loudly, rousing her from her thoughts. She descended the stairs, peering through the casement. The man on the horse rang a loud bell.
“The plague has come to an end,” he said and rode into the distance.
A sudden sense of joy emerged in her. But as she thought deeply of the people who had hurt her, all the death and the love she had longed for that was unrequited; she frowned.
“Is the world worthy of going back to?” She mumbled to herself.
She looked at the emptiness of the vast land and the two owls in the oak tree that fought in the harsh cold wind; one owl’s cry resounding sadness as it bled with defeat. It reminded the Countess of the cruelness everywhere.
“No!” she shouted. “The world is vulgar!”
With trembling hands, she bolted the door shut.
Dedicated to my beloved Brother Bill.
© 2021 Helen Mihajlovic
Helen Mihajlovic is a published author. Her short story ‘A Dark Love story’ is in the book ‘100 Doors to Madness’ available at Dymocks online bookstore. Other published stories include ‘A Sinister Nature’ and ‘The Temptation of Eve’. All stories are dedicated to her mother and brother.