The carriage stopped suddenly as we saw his castle. Beyond us, beyond the impetuous horses and the terrified, leathery coachman, a small singular hill rose from the forested valley floor, a steep path zigzagging up its pine-encrusted sides until it reached the high stone walls and shadowy towers where our journey’s end lay.
Stammering, a man more used to the company of mares than men, the coachman apologised profusely for the ill temper of his charcoal-black steeds. My sister, not one to suffer fools, turned her aquiline nose up at his explanations and, shooting him a scathing look from her hazel eyes, told him to go find porters and transport in the village that would get us to lodgings by nightfall. Doffing his cap, he turned and walked briskly off through the forest, following the gravel road until the thick pines obscured him.
I was about to start a conversation with my sister, but it was too late. Her eyes had settled, unwavering, on that hill fort. Not for the first time that month, I saw that she was wondering what could be awaiting her behind those grey granite walls.
Much had changed since we opened the letter back in our small cottage on the crossroads, telling us that our father’s once good friend, the Baron of Mansuria, lay on his deathbed requesting the company of my sister. Gone was almost all the finery that our once great house had owned. Gone were the paintings and sculptures, so much canvas and marble sold as fast as possible. Gone were my guns and my clothes, leaving me a pauper travelling with a rich man’s purse. My sister even traded away the jewelry, heirlooms that she had once treasured so much for the money necessary to cover this last trip.
My sister, with her head for figures and gold, did not stop even once to consider whether the trip was worth the expenditure. In careful, measured, conservative tones she reassured me that she felt certain that the Baron wished to make a gift to us in his will. The very next day, she took our old rosewood jewelry box, engraved with the family crest, down to the pawn brokers, leaving us only with what she wore now.
The light of the sun, only now beginning to redden as it dipped towards the hazy green peaks of the valley’s walls, glinted off of the perfect bloody rubies at her neck. The delicate ancient choker, it was said, had been smithed by some great great grand-aunt in East Europe for her debutante’s ball, and it had stayed in the family ever since. Around her finger, she wore a wide silver ring, engraved with our family name and a skeleton frozen in the danse macabre. It had been a gift at our father’s funeral, a dark day before I was born that my sister barely remembered. It was a memento mori of an almost forgotten truth.
As the coachman returned, a whole convoy of peasants with them, my sister broke from her reverie. There was no use wondering what was inside that place, the castle on the hill. We were going to find out soon enough.
To the east, a wide and gibbous moon finally inched its way above the crests of the hills. Somewhere in the woods, the plaintive, lyrical howl of a wolf could be heard, the approaching threat unseen.
There were stories of the Baron, we knew. Half-real rumours and outright lies gossiped about in all the high societies of Europe, stories that in some way or other filtered down to us in the years after our father’s death.
It was said, by some, that he ruled with an iron fist. Isolated as he was by the hundreds of miles of thick, tangled woods that surrounded his castle, it was alleged that he had a team of ruthless and sadistic guards loyal only to his wealth and their own desires, raping and murdering those they felt deserved their attention and punishing with great enthusiasm those who the baron saw as opposing him.
Others said that he meted out the punishment himself. The most common stories had him behead those that angered him himself, using a wickedly curved ancestral sword in the town square, his guards holding the families of the guilty still so that they were forced to see the blood gout out in thick sprays as the blade, blunt with age, bit again and again into the screaming man’s neck. Other supposed punishments of his included unthinkably cruel tortures. I remember hearing from a noble uncle of mine once that he would boil the children of adulterers until the flesh sloughed off, then force the men who aided in the women’s crimes to drink the soupy mixture. Some criminals, the tales explained, were thrown off the battlements below, while still others were hanged by the ankles into a wolf pack’s den. The condemned screams, people would explain, were the sweetest lullaby to him.
Upon arriving in the village, we of course found these tales to be untrue. There were no hoards of lusty guards, sweeping the streets, no chopping blocks in the town square, no gallows built over the wolf pits. In fact, no one could remember an execution since they caught the man who murdered the Kaifeck family, and he’d been hanged in the castle courtyard, an event only watched by the Baron himself and the murderer’s young wife, alongside, of course, the executioner.
There was, nonetheless, a certain fear of the Baron amongst the townspeople. In several buildings of the small village my sister and I saw portraits of him, woodcuts and sketches for the most part. But there was one example that stood out among the rest.
The night we arrived in the village, my sister and I stayed at the local inn. The Tattered Banner was a low, squat building, its black timbers and white walls bowed and groaning with the strain of centuries of history. Under its thatched roof, the acrid overbearing smell of wood-smoke was our sole companion while we waited for service.
On the wall, our mysterious benefactor glared vacantly forth. The oil portrait, though only two feet tall, seemed perfectly to capture the broad, tall posture of the Baron. His dark moustache curled under a hooked, eagle-like nose, and his thin black eyebrows were set in an emotion of stubborn, victorious anger. The painting was done in an old style, reminiscent of Anthony van Dycke’s works from more than a century earlier. Behind his gleaming steel armour, a horse reared, terrified at the sight of the leaping flames that scorched the forest around him.
Below the painting hung a curious artefact, a long, scorched length of fabric emblazoned with a noble family’s crimson arms and ancestral name. While I examined this, pinching and rolling the rough cloth between my thumb and forefinger, the barkeep entered the room.
“You like the painting?”, he said, his voice thick with a provincial, ancient accent.
“It shows the Baron, I assume? My sister and I are to meet him tomorrow. What is he like?”
The barkeep shook his head, crossing himself. He began to walk out of the room, but my sister moved faster and blocked the exit.
“Tell us about him. The people fear him, don’t they? Why? We deserve to know before we see him.”
“I cannot tell you,” he stuttered. I saw the ugly anger in the portrait flare in the ink-black pupils of my sister.
“If he is dangerous, tell us now. You send us to our doom if you do not.”
“I cannot tell you because I have not seen him for more than twenty years!”, the man cried, breaking free of the cold grip of my sister’s hand on his shoulder. “That painting is of the last time he was seen in public!”
“What do you mean you haven’t seen him? The Baron must meet his subjects, from time to time.”
The man crossed himself again, casting a sign against the evil eye at the Baron’s likeness. I saw now that the man wore a turquoise bead around his neck on a worn piece of leather, and sighed. I knew that he couldn’t give us much more than overheard superstition already had.
“I will tell you the story of the painting, and the banner beneath it. Then, you must ask nothing more of me. It is unlucky to talk of the Baron’s past. I will let you stay free of charge, but you must be gone by the time I open tomorrow.”
The malicious dying light of the fire glinted off of the rubies at my sister’s neck and the twinkling pools of her eyes. I swallowed, throat dry, aware of the oppressive heat in the room.
“Tell us,” she whispered finally. The barkeep started to speak.
The inn had not always been called The Tattered Banner. Going back twenty-five years, so recent that many of the older patrons still used the old name, it had simply been called The Forest Arms. That was changed only days after the battle, though.
Tensions had been rising for quite some time. Local nobility were jealous of the rich woodland and hunting grounds that the Baron controlled. Those of a moralist disposition were made uncomfortable at the complete control he exerted over his ancestral home. Even the King, rumoured to have once been a close friend of the Baron before his seclusion in the forests, had sent messengers to request that his practises be opened up for closer inspection. Each time, of course, the messengers were sent away without any cooperation from the Baron.
Finally, something was done. A militia, armed and horsed by the King, was sent to the town with orders to keep the road to his Barony open ahead of a formal inspection lead by the ruler himself.
The Baron, somehow, seemed to have some foreknowledge of this. Even as the troops were being readied in the castle of Hinterstein, a day’s march away, he was riding around the village on his white stallion, calling to arms all the forces he could muster. Even as he summoned them, though, he knew that he was doomed. The King was sending trained men, wrapped in thick armour of hide and metal and armed with muskets and blades the likes of which had never come this far into the forest before. And so, even as he rallied his forces and set up defences along the gravelled road, he schemed. He finally came up with a plan that, he knew, would keep the outside world away for a long, long time.
He and his seven children hid in the castle at the top of the hill. While his six sons looked after their newborn infant sister, he sat in a cupola at the top of the highest of his narrow stone towers. He read books, old books that detailed the prayers that he needed, and sometimes scanned the horizon, absentminded, waiting for the inevitable sharp, rippling crack of musket fire, half muffled by the trees, that would signal that it was time to do what he dreaded so much.
No one is quite sure exactly what he did. What those who were there report, though, is that as the fighting began a high, keening wail in a language no man could speak was heard coming from the chapel of the castle.
Minutes later, he bolted forth from the castle on his horse, spit frothing its halter, coming to aid as the last of his men were losing to the onrush of their own mortality. Without caution, he plunged onwards deep into the forest and, as he approached the fighting, pulled something out of his saddle bag. Holding it by the greasy, bloodstained hair, he began to chant in that same inhuman language as the trees around him burst aflame. He didn’t even break a sweat as the forest fire consumed vast swathes of life.
Minutes later all of the King’s men were dead, boiled alive inside their metal suits, skin scorched and fused with their armour. The object he had been holding was the dark-haired head of his firstborn son, eyeless. Strange, carved words were etched into both of his cheeks with the tip of a dagger. It is said that the Baron’s curved ancestral sword was still bloody in its sheath.
The only things to return from the battlefield were the Baron and the crimson, charred pendant that now lay under the portrait modelled after that cursed day. None of his children were ever seen again.
Had it not been for my sister, I should have left at once. I knew that the story was likely nonsense, superstition passed down the ages and warped, but was the pendant of the King not there hanging on the wall? Was the portrait alone not evidence enough of the violence this man was capable of? And was it not true that, the previous morning, we had breakfasted in a clearing like what one would see sometime after a forest fire, the only marker of human habitation a pit of disturbed ground topped with a single whitewashed wooden cross?
My sister was adamant, though. She thought that nothing bad could await us in the castle, now that the Baron lay there breathing his last. My god! I wish that I could have persuaded her to stay away from that fateful destination. Perhaps I would still have her here as I write this, here in my lonely, quiet cottage that was always too small for two people but now is too big for one.
I digress. I have promised that I will write about this in as accurate a manner as I can, so that all will know and understand what happened.
As the first edge of the sun rose above the forested hilltops, a ghostly pale disc, my sister and I set out for the Baron’s castle. A thick mist hid most of the town, disappearing out into the trees, the castle above it all like Mont Saint-Michel at high tide. The village was quiet. In a few silent houses candles flickered against dust-brown windows, tallow spitting against the glass. Outside the butchers, a fresh-slaughtered pig hung by its ankles, warm blood still trickling steadily out of the two-inch deep slash that had wrenched open its neck. The white porcelain bowl beneath was close to overflowing with the spattered, sticky maroon.
We climbed the stone steps out of the gloom. From the slope, we could see along the entire length of the valley, even to the distant towers of Hinterstein, that storied castle where the last visitors to the Baron had prepared for their final journey. The path turned in on itself, and the view was finally hidden. Ahead of us was nothing but the impassive, massive oblong of the studded oak door.
My sister gave it a gentle push, and ahead of us the door swung open on silent, oiled hinges. A short, dark tunnel faced us, and then we were in the overgrown weeds and patchy turf of the ancient, untended courtyard. The walls around us seemed to lean inwards as if to make us claustrophobic. Dull grey roof slates sloughed off and into shattered piles of masonry on the path around the edge of the grass. At the centre was a long stopped bronze fountain, green rust corroding Cupid’s face from neat Italian sculpture to something natural and unrecognisable.
There were no signs that anyone had been here for a very long time. Most of the walls around us were punctured only by the cramped eyelids of arrow slits, and what arrows there were, crisscrossed with lead, were either blind with dirt or had become shattered, jagged teeth around a rotten, vacuous mouth.
My sister pressed her face up to an empty diamond of window, inviting me over. Inside, we saw a long, broad corridor. Baroque decorations of gilded oak ran up the walls towards opulent ceiling paintings of rich classical scenes. The dense, red carpet had become dark pink with the decade’s worth of dust piled into its velvet smoothness.
A painting was hung opposite us, illuminated in crosshatch through the milky gloom of the windows. The subject was, we assumed, some ancestor of the Baron’s. The woman was tall and imperial, her corset-thin waist perched precariously above the broad hips of her whalebone dress. Above a wide, lacey ruff her face smirked with raptorial intelligence, her dark eyes set apart, divided by her characteristically aquiline nose. Dark, curled hair was held in place by a silver tiara encrusted in the fine blood-clot points of rubies.
A dark cloud passed across the sky, driven by a cold wind that carried with it the implicit threat of rain. It was with a shiver that the both of us fixed eyes on the sole accessible door in the courtyard, set within the still immaculate walls of the castle’s chapel. Even before we decided to enter, we both knew that, on the other side, the Baron was waiting for us.
The room was lit in dull amber. Yellowing, oily-scented candles burnt with long tapering flames that stretched towards the high ceilings. The smoky columns passed the idols of saints and cool blue stained glass windows. Each depicted a different martyr in their final rictus of pain. On the far wall, placed above the low wooden exit, hung a life-sized crucifix, conspicuously missing its occupant.
Below the cross, just ahead of us, where the altar should have been, was the Baron. His bed was white and pure, but crumpled around the diminutive figure who was its only occupant. His dark hair was gone now, the scalp wrinkled over his thin, eggshell skull. The slender dark eyebrows were now white with age. Either side of the eagle-hook nose, his dark eyes lay half-open, their pupils looking vacantly across the room, past us, at some saint or other. The neck moved with each painful swallow and weak breath. Finally, the eyes opened fully and focused on my sister’s face.
“My daughter. Come, please. Daughter…” he whispered, slowly. My sister approached.
“My lord, I am not your daughter. I am the child of Duke-”
“No!”, he yelled with surprising force, starting forwards. His dark hazel eyes fixed a moment on mine, and I saw the fire that lay within, the anger that was so perfectly captured in the portrait in The Tattered Banner. Then, sitting up on his ancient bones, he fixed his gaze on my sister.
“The Duke… he was my friend, yes, and he took you in, my child, but… you are my daughter.”
“Your daughter?” my sister said, tears of confusion threatening to break from the corners of her eyes, “But… you killed your children!”
“No… not you, my love. You were too young… I could not hurt you. They didn’t… they didn’t want the girl.”
“Yes, the gods. The gods. The gods, they wanted my sons. They wanted… they made me kill them myself, with my sword… my old sword…”
“My brothers. You murdered my brothers? You killed them and abandoned me. You bastard! How could you?”
I went to console her, to hug this sister who was not my sister, but she threw me off. The same fire which had burned in the Baron’s eyes now burned in hers. A single precious tear now rolled down the creased cheek of the Baron and onto the white goose-feather pillow.
“I needed the power. They… they were coming to me. Please, I needed to hand down the line, to keep this place for my children.”
“Your children? You slaughtered your children like pigs, you monster!”
“Not all of them. You must take my position. Keep the family alive. You are our family now.”
“You are no family of mine!” she shrieked, lunging forwards and ripping of her ermine gloves. Straddling his pathetic form, she gripped tight onto the tendons of his throat, pushing hard into the bony flesh and gristle. I watched, too astounded to do anything, as the white skin of her hands deformed around the spine of her father, the Last Baron. We were silent as his last whistling breaths flowed out and into nothing.
Panting, crying, she collapsed beside the now expired man. The Last Baron was dead, and now the castle had a Baroness, one who had earned the violent right to the title.
The door out of the church opened up into a small graveyard set onto the side of the hill. Behind the leaning trees and drooping boughs, the pine forests far below us stretched and smothered the terrain in a smooth, oceanic flatness. The chill wind had passed, and now a warming afternoon sun bathed us in its late-spring glow.
There was cow parsley in between the stones. Dozens of lanky, skeletal stalks burst from the ground and branched up and out into the snowflake flowers that gently bobbed in the cool breeze, dancing in a rhythm repeated atop that hill since time immemorial. Tall grass swayed with the passing gusts, heavy heads bowing low with the burden of thick, ripe seeds. Around everything was the droning murmur of crickets, and two white butterflies skittered around each other, circling the Baroness and I.
Six gravestones, hewn from the same slate-grey rock as the castle, poked their blunt male heads above the flowers in the graveyard. There were others there too, but these identical six were fresh and new. If one wanted to, one could still make out their names and ages below the just-begun growths of lichen. The youngest was six. Behind each trailed my sister’s new surname, like a banner behind a charging horseman.
I let her cry for a little while. Really, there was nothing I could do but wait. As time passed, though I knew that there was going to be no return to England for her, that just like the ghosts of her father’s past she would never truly leave this castle behind.
As the sun began to fall back towards its nightly rest, I turned to leave. The Baroness reached out her hand, though, and I took it. The warm feel of used metal came into my hand as she disengaged, and there in my fingers was the skeleton ring, the little figure gallivanting cheerily in the danse macabre. She shrugged at me, and I met those brown eyes, so much like her father’s.
“The ring is yours. It was your father that we buried, not mine.”
“Sister,” I replied, stumbling over the word that seemed not to fit in my mouth anymore. Shameful, she gazed back at the headstone that had so caught her attention, the grave of her oldest sibling. She nodded in wordless reply.
“Don’t bury him here. This place is too nice, don’t let him pollute it.”
She nodded and stood. She embraced me once, kissed me, and then that was it. I left her in that high stone castle, and have never returned. She gave a hearty donation to restore my family name, and I have been working hard to pay off the debts of my father.
I wear that memento mori even now, as I write this. Not to remind me of death, but to remind me of her, of the Last Baron and the First Duchess.