These three days we are apart I have traveled beneath gloomy skies that gave way to a tempest befitting my circumstance. I pray, dearest Erzsi, that you find it in your heart to forgive me should this letter cause you to sup of my cheerless mood. I have searched in earnest for a measure to forestall ruin. My hardiest desires remain to safeguard my good name and return to you, body and soul, even as the horrors to which I bear witness plot against us.
I arrived at the castle, accompanied by my retinue, beneath cover of stormy night. Upon asserting my authority as His Majesty King Matthias II’s loyal emissary, we were grudgingly admitted through creaking doors to the interior of Csethje Manor. Our escort was cousin Erzsebet Bathory’s manservant, a dwarf whose thundering voice was at odds with his stunted physique. The putrid odor I detected upon entering, akin to that conceived in battle, grew stronger the farther into the castle we traveled. Alas, I fear no degree of bathing with scented oil will subvert this particular stench.
At its detection, I demanded that we be dispatched directly to the Countess’s private chambers. The manservant trembled as he led us down the darkened hallway along blood-spattered stone walls. An old woman carrying a bundle of torn garments hurried by us, head bowed and eyes averted, set thus to avoid my gaze. A jangling key fastened to her chain belt, which I presumed to unlock the Countess’s bedchamber, set my heart ablaze.
Forthwith, my attention was drawn to a lifeless body sprawled within meters of a stairwell. Although in shadow, I saw that the young woman’s bodice had been torn away, revealing skin paler than any I have seen on the battlefield, save for the blue bruises on the torn flesh of her breasts. I assume my face betrayed me then, as the dwarf freely divulged that the young woman’s unfortunate death resulted from a fragile constitution. Although he said she had been beaten for stealing a pear-- a punishment I deem acceptable—I then cursed Fate for joining my bloodline with that of Erzsebet Bathory.
We entered a hidden stairwell along which I spied a handful of young maidservants, two of whom attempted to conceal scars on their faces, which plunged into the bodices of their tattered frocks. One girl brazen enough to search my eyes caused me to look away. Despite your accusations that my nature is callous, I pitied these girls, though I had to suppress all feeling. Be reminded, Erzsi, that softness of heart and head will not serve us near as well as calculation.
Among the girls we passed were a few in whom my interest was keen, their wounds far exceeding the others’. I demanded to inspect them thoroughly before moving on. Most were missing fingers and two unfortunate girls had sewing needles wedged deep beneath the nail beds of their blackened hands. My knees weakened and my throat tightened as I realized it was not possible that all of the Countess’s maidservants had deserved this torture and that the sullying of my name might soon be upon us. As we pressed forward, the stink of rotting flesh strengthened, warning that my cousin’s chambers were close at hand. It was then that I reviewed the strategies I conceived to erect a wall between the Countess and myself whilst simultaneously protecting the Crown.
Darling Erzsi, it took considerable time for my mind to conjure what my eyes glimpsed when the dwarf opened the door to the Countess’s private chambers. The room itself befitted a queen. Mirrors on each wall were set in ornate frames of carved and gilded wood. The bedding and canopy were woven of golden brocade. The Countess, dressed in a burgundy velvet gown with an intricately embroidered lace bodice, sat perched at the foot of her bed, her crooked fingers resting on the spine of a prostrate young girl. The Countess smoothed her coiled curls and placed her hand on the crouched girl’s head, rousing her sobs. To my astonishment, the maidservant had no signs of injury upon her young body.
Would that this was all my eyes consumed instead of the torment they next visited upon me. The floor was covered in a carpet of ash and earth, its color crimson. The mirrors were dusted dark red. On the bedside table sat a large bowl of stinging nettles, which the Countess instructed her manservant to prepare for our coming meal; I understood that instead their intended purpose was to be applied directly to the maidservant’s skin, a signal that her torture then commenced. Erzsebet waved her hand as if to dismiss me. This is when I noticed our family coat of arms on the wall behind her, a dragon encircling three claws, its horned tail now stained in blood.
I overcame all reluctance and acted swiftly. I arrested my cousin’s attendants, including the dwarf, and alerted them that they would be tried and executed if found guilty. I placed my cousin under house arrest with the expectation that I would convince the King that a public trial would bring disgrace, not to my good name alone, but to all nobility. My remaining task, my loyal Erzsi, is to inform the King that I apprehended the Countess amidst the commission of an offense. I trust you appreciate the wisdom in promoting this falsehood.
I implore you to accept this as my duty, for in serving His Majesty King Matthias II loyally I need act in accordance with his request to punish all that are responsible for the atrocities to which his kingdom is subjected. Much to your dismay, this must include my cousin Erzsebet. Lest you forget, the crest of the Holy Roman Emperor is our protector. As you, beloved Erzsi, shall remain mine.
Your Loving Lord and Spouse, Count Gyorgy Thurzo
Bio Jan Elman Stout’s fiction has been published in Literary Orphans, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Vestal Review, Shotgun Honey, The Airgonaut and elsewhere. She was finalist in the Midwestern Gothic Summer 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. Her flash “Marital Amnesias” was nominated by JCCA for Best Small Fictions 2017. She is Assistant Fiction Editor at Indianola Review. Jan lives with her husband in Washington, DC.