The Countess Pamela Bohrer had ridden the carriage for miles as she headed towards the isolated land where the medieval Castle Adnarim rested on a hill. The castle had been passed down through generations of the Bohrer family and the Countess had become the sole heir.
The castle loomed ahead with its high stone walls and six ominous towers that penetrated the night sky. It had one hundred rooms, seventy fireplaces, lengthy hallways and the rows of heavily barred windows gave the impression that the outside world was forbidden entry.
When the Countess arrived, she entered the dark castle, shivering inside its cold rooms. A damp odor filled the air. The moonlight streaming from the pointed windows faintly lit the vaulted ceilings, the dirty ground, the cracks in the walls, and the decaying marble on the fireplace.
“Frederick!” she yelled.
The silhouette of her servant appeared in a dim doorway. He was a tall man with hollow cheeks and silver hair, who had served her family for two generations.
“Welcome back to Adnarim Castle Countess Bohrer,” he said. “How was your trip into town?”
“The plague has spread to Vienna,” she said. Her voice quivered. “Everyone must remain in their houses.”
Frederick’s hands shook as he attempted to lift her bag; the Countess insisted she would carry the bag herself.
“I would like dinner served in an hour,” she ordered.
He gave a nod before she ascended the stairs to her bedchamber.
In the center of the chamber was an ornamented bed made of dark wood. Around it, rich embroideries hung on the walls and the family coat of arms hung by the door: a silhouette of a chiropteran with crooked wings.
The Countess jolted when she heard a sudden bang. She lit a candle, looking nervously around the bedchamber. She searched under the bed and behind the purple curtains in case of an intruder. A moonbeam revealed a moving shadow on the wall. Her heartbeat grew erratic. But when she approached the shadow, it disappeared.
The Countess grew fearful that her anxious temperament would develop to the neurosis that had frequently tormented her for years; whereby she would see shadows and shapes of all sizes that would take the form of threatening creatures, that were a trickery of her senses.
She was relieved to find that the open shutters flapping in the wind had caused the shadow. She closed the shutters. But upon hearing a loud groan in the hallway, her blood pulsed. She slowly walked to the chamber door and opened it.
The hallway floorboards creaked beneath her feet as she headed towards the solemn groaning. It grew louder. As she turned the corner, there stood a pale young man, with large somber eyes and black attire, whose form was transparent; she could see the wall through him.
For a moment happiness rose in her heart; it was her beloved brother William. But when she remembered more than a decade had passed since his death, her face grew whiter than the ghost.
“William,” she said.
“I am here to warn you,” he said.
His grim tone frightened her.
“Warn me!” her voice faltered.
“Two men are coming to Adnarim Castle.”
“Who are they?”
“They are dangerous men who mean you harm.”
“I’ve done no wrong to have an enemy.”
“They are violent scoundrels.”
“I have nothing of great value to steal. I have sold most of the jewelry for the maintenance of my properties.” But trepidation overtook her as she remembered the several parcels recently bought from various shops in town that were to be delivered to the castle upon her return.
“They’ll steal any of your possessions they can barter.”
Her bottom lip quivered. “I’m afraid they’ll bring the plague.”
“You must bolt all the doors and stay inside.”
“I’m all alone,” she said. “There’s no one to protect me.” She looked to the kindness on his face. He had been the only man who had loved her.
“I miss you, William.”
“Hold onto calm, dearest sister,” he said. “With shrewd thinking, you will prevail.”
She ran to every door in the castle and bolted it shut.
The Countess sat at the head of a long rectangular table covered in a rich fabric, on a high chair decorated with whimsical carvings. She glanced at her reflection on the chalice, her dark curls with a few strands of silver hung on her shoulders, her large black eyes had dark circles and she wore a flowing red velvet looped up skirt adorned with red ribbon.
A momentary sadness crossed the Countess’ face as she looked at the empty seats. Memories of childhood tormented her; she often sat alone in the gardens as a young girl, surrounded by the laughter of children running around the large oak trees. Throughout her life, she had grown accustomed to being alone.
When Frederick’s old limbs hadn’t brought her meal to the table an hour later, she charged into the kitchen and came back with a gold dish weighted with salmon and placed a pitcher filled with mead by its side.
A loud crack of thunder penetrated the night sky as the Countess ate. She turned towards the opened arched window and a look of fright crossed her eyes. She imagined a bolt of lightning striking her balcony and sparking a wildfire burning Castle Adnarim to ashes. She shut the window, grimacing at the dark clouds as the sudden rain thrashed the pane.
As she stepped back, a drop of liquid fell on her cheek from a hole in the ceiling. The Countess wondered if the liquid held a perilous nature: a dangerous acid that she imagined scalding her skin, eating away each layer of the flesh and leaving her skull protruding. Her fingers anxiously rose to her cheek, reassured that it was merely a drop of harmless rainwater. She exhaled with relief.
After dinner, the Countess headed to the pointed tower of Adnarim Castle containing the musty smell of the thousands of books lining mahogany circular shelves. A few words were engraved on the wall: Everything is too complicated for human beings to understand.
The Countess sat behind a wooden desk with a quill pen, ink bottle and parchment. She had often come to the tower to divert her attention from anxious thoughts and would spend hours writing her poetry.
Her mind was haunted by the vision of her brother’s ghost.
What if William’s warning were to come true?
She picked up the quill pen longing for a moment of peace while finishing her poem about a brave soldier and the Zanni trickster as he leapt and tumbled. A hint of a smile emerged on her lips as she lingered in her imagination.
But a sudden bang outside the castle roused the Countess from her fancies; her quill pen fell to the ground. She peered out the casement onto the moonlit courtyard where strange shadows of two figures advanced. She remembered her brother’s warning; her breath grew louder.
The Countess descended the stairs. She grasped her head at the loud banging on the doors as the thieves endeavored to break into the castle.
“Frederick,” she called.
But there was no answer; Frederick had been ill after dinner and had gone to bed early. She grimaced at the shatter of glass; a rock had found its way between the bars on a window.
The Countess gasped. Many thoughts racing through her mind, she ran to get her bow and quiver of arrows and then rushed to the balcony. She peered over the ledge and saw the silhouettes of two men: one scrawny and the other portly, both continuing to beat on the doors.
She watched the silhouettes steal her parcel by the door. She thought of what her brother William had told her. “Hold onto calm, dearest sister. With shrewd thinking, you will prevail.”
Strangely a moment of calm came over her. She aimed an arrow at the thief with the portly form and kept shooting till he fell dead. She aimed another arrow at the scrawny thief, who, having seen his accomplice fall down dead, began to run. The Countess clenched her teeth as her arrow missed him. She pulled out another arrow from the quiver and took her aim. A wicked gleam crossed her eyes as she struck his head and he fell to the ground in a pool of blood.
For several days afterward, the Countess stood guard on the balcony till a late hour. She peered through a handheld telescope, allowing her to see the far ends of the vast land that surrounded the castle. She regretted not having repaired the drawbridge since her last stay here.
One night, as she marched up and down the balcony, watching for intruders, she saw a figure on horseback riding towards the castle. She shook with fear.
“Frederick,” she yelled.
The shape of a man drew nearer. She quickly ran into the house. There was a loud knock on the door.
Frederick walked wearily to the door but did not open it.
“The castle holds arms!” said Frederick.
“Who are you?” asked the Countess, from behind the closed door.
“I am Lieutenant Christoff Alexandra,” he said.
“We’re not accepting visitors during the plague,” said the Countess.
“I am from the far east, there is no plague on that side of the river.”
The Countess and Frederick exchanged a contemplative stare. The Countess hesitantly opened the door.
The man was masked by the night and she caught shades of a navy-blue uniform.
“May I speak to the owner of the castle?” he said, removing his hat.
“I am Countess Pamela Bohrer, the owner of Adnarim Castle,” she said. “You may come inside.”
“Countess Bohrer, I am looking for a place to stay for the night.” He said as he entered. His dark brown eyes held a mischievous stare and ebony curls lined his hat. A hint of a smile crossed the Countess’ lips.
“I must leave for Vienna in the morning.”
“Frederick, show Lieutenant Alexandra to a bedchamber upstairs.”
The Lieutenant gave the Countess a lascivious look over his shoulder as he followed Frederick up to his chamber.
The next few days brought forth a settled wind; the Countess was pleased that the Lieutenant had extended his stay at the castle. They roamed the gardens as the swallow sang a pleasing melody, spending afternoons under the Magnolia tree.
“I am the greatest swordsman in the whole of Austria,” boasted the Lieutenant. He drew out his sword and thrashed the air. “I have fought many battles.”
The Countess’ brows rose, mesmerized by his shiny sword.
When the Lieutenant finally put away his sword, he took out a book from his coat pocket. It was a collection of poetry by Robert Herrick. He read with a soft voice that the Countess found hard to hear.
How Love came in, I do not know,
Whether by the eye, or ear, or no;
Or whether with the soul it came,
At first, infused with the same;
Whether in part ’tis here or there,
Or, like the soul, whole everywhere.
The Countess’ smile broadened.
When night fell, they both kept warm by the fireplace after a scrumptious dinner. The Lieutenant reached for the Countess’ hand. He moved closer to her and their figures almost touched.
“Do you like to dance?” he asked.
“But there’s no music, Christoff,” she said. “I will ask Frederick to play the harpsichord.”
Frederick was seated at the harpsichord in moments.
Christoff spun her around the room, with his light touch. The Countess lifted her head to the heavenly twangs of the music and they both laughed.
As they grew weary at the end of the night, the Lieutenant gave her a lustful stare and his lips met hers with fervor. A glimmer of hope emerged in the Countess’ eyes, that she had found love.
To Be Continued Tomorrow…
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.