From the forthcoming short-story collection, Tales of the Uplands (July 2015)
“I did no such thing, my lady,” Joschka heard Rada Ni Drako protest. “I just read the children one of the fairy tales out of the book in the nursery.” Joschka looked up at the library ceiling and wondered what his old friend had gotten into this time. Then he lit his pipe and returned to reading.
“Which book, Rachel?” Gräfin Adele von Hohen-Drachenburg asked, walking into the library with Rada, or Rachel Na Gael as Joschka’s family knew her.
“Kinder und Hausmärchen, the copy with the green covers, the old one.” She thought for a moment before adding, “And one from the Märchen aus Kärnten about Schloss Stein.”
Adele put her hands over her ears and looked down at the Persian rug, then sat in the chair across from Joschka. “No wonder their mother is complaining about nightmares! Rachel, Hannes is eight. That’s too young for Grimm and the Schloss Stein stories.”
Rachel shrugged, hands spread, and turned to Joschka. “My lord General, I promise, I was not adding scary voices or anything inappropriate. And I didn’t read the ones about siblings that murder each other, or what the Devil did to Dr. Faustus.”
Joschka blew a long plume of smoke, in part to buy time as he fought off a smile. He believed Rachel, he really did, but her idea of “not that scary” would make the bearskin rug shriek in terror, then run off and hide in the chapel. Well, he reminded himself, considering what did scare her, she’d probably toned things down considerably, even from what Grimm recorded. He took his pipe out of his mouth and set his book down. “As I recall, my lady, we went through the books in the nursery to make certain that nothing inappropriate remained on the shelves.”
Adele nodded. “We did, my lord husband, nothing inappropriate and nothing valuable or rare. Apparently Hannes and his sister and their cousins are a bit more sensitive than we thought.” She sighed. “Or Maria is going through a phase and set the other children off in their sleep.”
Joschka looked to Rachel, who nodded. “I believe she is, my lady, my lord General. She was complaining after her nap about something chasing her in her dreams. If she’s beginning to show an empathic gift, or Healing, she’s at the right age for it to start overpowering her shielding instinct.”
“Well, either way, Rachel, no more scary stories at bedtime. Or you will have to sleep in the nursery to calm things down before it wakes the rest of us up,” Adele threatened, smiling as she wagged a slender finger at her guest.
Rachel did her best to look penitent, but Joschka caught the glint in her good eye. He smoothed his beard with his free hand, wondering if he should warn the maids not to open the nursery door without knocking, then waiting for permission to enter. Because he would not be at all surprised to hear that someone had seen a very large one-eyed black cat sleeping in the middle of the former maids’ quarters, now serving as a children’s room.
Rachel took her accustomed seat by the now-cold fireplace. Summer had turned very mild, even for the Drachental, and Adele had ordered the entire building aired out, including the Graf’s library. Joschka hoped no moths got in: he could imagine what Rachel’s response would be.
She gave him a look of mild disappointment. <<Excuse me, my lord General, but I am housebroken,>> Rachel protested into his mind.
He snorted quietly, giving her a stern look as he tightened his shields.
Aloud she said, “My lady, I’m curious about the Schloss Stein tales. The one about the murdered groom sounds rather bloody, even by Austrian border standards.”
Adele pointed to her husband. “Ask him. The histories of noble houses are his area, not mine. I just married into this chaos, as you recall.” She smiled.
“My dear lady wife, neither of my Houses are chaotic, I assure you, nor is my household.” Silver eye and light blue eyes shared equally unconvinced expressions and he clarified, “Christmas and school holidays aside, of course.” A look passed between the ladies that boded ill for the direction of the conversation, and Joschka changed the topic slightly. “That said, there is more truth to the story than in most, although the ending is where history and legend diverge.”
Rachel perked up, eye bright, listening intently. Adele pulled mending out of her basket and started sewing a patch onto a small pair of trousers. “What did happen, my lord General?”
Joschka leaned back in the ornately carved chair, pipe in one hand, the other resting on the talons carved into the dark wood of the arm. “The story as it was told to me . . .
Schloss Stein perched on the end of a dark spur of rock, high above the valley of the Drau River. The building came by its name honestly, made of cold, creamy grey stone quarried from the other side of the mountain, as well as from bits of older fortifications and even of a Roman temple. A narrow, raised causeway led from the mountain to the gate of the castle, the only entrance or exit. The lords of Schloss Stein controlled the traffic along the Drau, charging a toll from the farmers, pilgrims, merchants, and others using the river to go to the local market, or to Pisa, Venice, Nuremberg, Vienna, Rome, or even Jerusalem. From their perch two hundred meters above the Drau, nothing escaped their watch. After 1680 the castle passed into the Orsini-Rosenberg family, and House Rozemberk, but it is the long, dark years before that spawned so many tales and whispers.
You see, something about the castle invited cruelty, or tales of it. Perhaps it was the isolation, away from the eyes of bishop or archduke, those who might have checked the nature of the Steinmetz clan. Perhaps the repeated invasions and assaults, first by the Huns, then the Avars, then Magyars, and Turks, and occasionally Italian and Slav adventurers, hardened the hearts of the lords of Schloss Stein. Another tale holds that the House that became Steinmetz had been driven from softer climes because of their cruelty and mad streak. They also clung to the old, pagan ways long after the other lords and their people turned to the True Faith, or so a few stories aver. For whatever reason, the farmers and travelers passing under the castle’s shadow paid their tolls and hurried on, hoping not to catch the eyes of the Lords of Stein.
The most famous story centers on a lord and his daughter. Let us call them Graf Johan von und zu Stein, and Richilda. Graf Johan guarded his daughter very closely, not allowing her to go anywhere alone, but always with her ladies, ladies he hand-picked to answer only to him. Richilda was beautiful, with long, golden hair and soft blue eyes, eyes the color of the sky in spring when all the world is waking from winter. She had a melodious voice, like birdsong or the murmur of the Drau in summer, and was graceful of figure. Graf Johan gave her everything she might possibly want, but kept her confined to the burgfried, the heart of Schloss Stein, unless he traveled with her. You see, he had plans for his daughter.
No ordinary knight or merchant would do for Richilda. No, Graf Johan dreamed of greater things than simply ruling the lands of his ancestors. He could not rise to the Archduke of Carinthia and Styria, for that position came from the hand of the Emperor himself, but marrying his daughter to a duke, or even Archduke or prince would serve as well. She would command a fine bride price, and Graf Johan had a list of potential sons-in-law long before Richilda reached the age to marry.
Now, do not mistake greed for barbarity. Graf Johan, like his ancestors, was not uncultured. He welcomed traveling scholars, musicians of high skill, and writers and poets. He fed them well, gave them gifts and free passage, and in return they presented him with poems of praise, dedicated works to his name, and painted images that brought grace and beauty to Schloss Stein. His guests also knew the risk if they offended him, and chose their words with due care for their lives. Graf Johan’s agents bought books and works of art as well, nothing that could compete with the Imperial collections, or those of the great lords of Florence and Padua, but Schloss Stein’s master could certainly equal the other counts of southern Austria.
One of the authors caught Richilda’s fancy, or rather his books did, at least at first. Paul, a young man from the town of Greifenburg, wrote tales of great loves and mighty battles, as well as more dispassionate accounts of the year’s events for various merchant houses and minor nobles who did not have clerks and scribes at hand the way the monasteries did. It would not be incorrect to say that Paul’s works were best sellers, at least among those with money for secular books. Paul made a comfortable living from his pen, neither overly rich but not starving in a garret as later poets seem to have aspired to do. He became known as “the Writer from Greifenburg,” perhaps a nod to the great minnesinger known only as The Man from Kürnburg. Graf Johan von und zu Stein read the tales, as did Richilda.
It came to pass that the Writer of Greifenburg chanced to pass Schloss Stein one spring day, on his way to join the pilgrims traveling to Rome. When Graf Johan learned just who his guards had stopped to collect toll from, well, nothing could be done but for the young man to stop and stay in Schloss Stein as a guest of the count. Alas, it would have been better had Graf Johan sent the young man on his way, or had Paul chosen a different route. Because that night, during the feast in the visitor’s honor, Richilda offered the Writer von Greifenburg the wine cup. Their eyes met over the top of the rim of the glass, and love burst into flame. But the young pair hid their feelings, at least while under the gaze of Graf Johan and his attentive matrons and men. Paul had not survived writing for prickly nobility without gaining a certain measure of caution and tact, as well as cleverness. As for Richilda, she possessed every bit of her House’s traditional determination and intelligence. And she had read enough of the tales and sagas to know better than to attract her father’s attention with a display of unseemly interest in their guest.
Richilda also knew every passage, corridor, and shadow in the burgfried. That night, after the candles burned low and her guardians had fallen asleep, she slipped out of her chamber, making her way through the darkness to the guest-chamber where her father housed honored but not noble visitors. What transpired the tales do not say, although one may suppose much, including warm words and whispered promises and plans.
The next morning the Writer of Greifenburg thanked his host for the count’s most generous and noble hospitality, and promised to inform his lordship as soon as the next works might be available, including several as gifts in recognition of the count’s taste and wisdom. Richilda remained in her chambers, as was proper. The young man departed, riding out on his sturdy gelding, bound for Rome. Graf Johan returned to his business and there the tale should have ended, save for the workings of the heart. For the next morning Lady Richilda’s maids made a horrible discovery: their charge had disappeared. They searched for some time before daring to approach Graf Johan with the dreadful news.
By then the lovers had escaped, riding hard through dark and dawn. Perhaps their meeting came as the will of God, for they found a large traveling party and continued south, into Italy, where they married. Only in late summer did the count’s knights and agents find the couple, safely living behind Trentino’s walls. When the news reached Graf Johan von und zu Stein, the men and women of the Schloss trembled with fear for what he might do or say. But the legends claim that he listened to the news, calm and quiet, considered the matter for several days, and then issued commands, never raising his voice, never giving any sign of anger. One suspects this terrified the people of the burgfried even more than his usual rage did, but the tales are silent. Nor do they reveal what became of Richilda’s maids, although other older accounts describe a tower on the edge of the rocky spur into which those farmers unable to pay their taxes were thrown, never to be seen again.
According to the tale, Graf Johan sent a message, along with a party of knights and soldiers, to Trentino. All would be forgiven. He would not fight what the church had blessed. Instead, he desired the couple to return for a proper bridal feast before taking up life in Greifenburg. And so the couple returned, likely with some trepidation, to Schloss Stein.
They rode into the courtyard of the burgfried to find a grand feast waiting. Musicians tuned their instruments, tables groaned under the weight of food, and Graf Johan offered Paul von Greifenberg a fat purse of coins, the equivalent of Richilda’s dowry. After confirming that, indeed, the couple were married and all was in order, the count ordered the feast to begin. He himself poured the wedding cup, offering it first to Richilda, the daughter of his heart, the treasure of his family. She drank, staggered, dropping the cup before sinking to the floor. Her husband rushed to her side, feeling for a pulse, but the death-dew had already gathered on her fair brow. The young man rose to his feet, although what he intended no one ever knew, for he collapsed, red blood staining his shirt and jacket, blood as red as the poisoned wine. Graf Johan cleaned his knife on the young man’s sleeve and ordered servants to remove the bodies so the feast could continue. No one dared do otherwise.
A few years later, Graf Johan himself took that dark road from which no one returns. His eldest son and others watched as servants loaded the ornate casket into the funeral carriage for the journey to the cemetery. But when the driver shut the door to the carriage, a sound like fighting, muffled cries of terror, and thumps came from the inside. The count’s son shouldered the driver aside and threw open the door to behold—nothing. He ordered the servants to remove the casket, which they did with far less effort than when they carried Graf Johan into the carriage. Two knights broke the lead seal on the coffin and prized open the lid. They found a few crumbs of brimstone but nothing else: no grave cloth, no body, no trace of the count.
The new lord of Schloss Stein ordered the witnesses to silence, and so ended the matter. But rumor spread as rumors do, hinting that the devil himself had been waiting for Graf Stein and had snatched him body and soul, dragging him into the Pit.
“And that is the tale as it was told to me,” Joschka concluded, taking a long pull on his favorite bad habit, then blowing a few smoke rings after savoring the smoke’s flavor. Adele crossed herself. Rachel considered the story but kept her peace, for the moment.
“Now, as to what really happened.” Joschka pointed at the top row of books on the far set of bookshelves with the stem of the pipe. “The Writer of Greifenburg belonged to a minor House through adoption. He had informed his godfather of the escape and marriage, and of his pending return to Greifenburg. When the young man and his bride failed to return, his godfather made inquiries.
“House Greipen did not belong to the first ranks of Houses, but it was not because of the Head’s lack of cleverness or tenacity. No, Lord Greipen planned well, and quietly and indirectly obtained tacit permission from House Habsburg to deal with the injustice. The House members supported Lord Greipen, as did others with claims against Graf Johan von und zu Stein, and Lord Greipen arranged for a few House members to infiltrate Schloss Stein and the Steinmetz clan. Then he waited.
“When Graf Johan fell ill, House Greipen acted. The physician, bribed by the House, drugged the count so that he appeared dead. Greipen servants prepared the body so that no one would notice any possible signs of life. The death carriage, too, held a secret within its ornate sides. The Head of House Greipen waited inside, under a false floor. The casket had a sliding panel in the bottom, and you can imagine what happened, since the drug began to wear off as the servants loaded the body into the carriage.” Joschka smiled, baring his fangs.
Rachel flashed hers in turn, and flexed her claws. “Indeed, my lord General. Do the House histories provide any further detail?” The gleam in her eye warned Joschka what sort of detail she hoped to hear.
“No. But,” he cautioned before she could complain, “remember that House Greipen was not the only House or family to which Graf Johan owed debts, and the chronicles only stated that ‘vielen Schulden bezahlen waren,’ many debts were paid. Whether that means the others had agreed to let the count’s death answer for all, or something else . . .” Joschka shrugged a little, and smiled a little. He had his own suspicions; Schulden meant sin as well as debt.
“You are not telling that story to the children, Rachel,” Adele said. “Not until they are older at the very least.”
Rachel blinked, confusion obvious. “Why not, my lady? Evil lost, someone reset the balance of justice, and it is a warning about pride and greed. And stupidity, but that’s a very minor point indeed.”
“My lady, would you care for a drink?” Joschka asked, distracting both women. He gave Rachel a stern look and pointed to the liquor cabinet. “One of the fruit beers, please.”
Rachel got up and fetched the desired item, along with an opener. Joschka never allowed anyone to open a drink out of his sight, as she well knew. They’d witnessed one of their comrades learn that lesson the hard way. <<Spoilsport.>>
He opened the bottle and returned it and the opener to her. She poured it into a glass and returned with the drink as Adele said, “Yes. The cherry water if there is any left.” Rachel fetched that as well, and Joschka sent, <<Forestalling an argument. My roof, my lady’s rules.>>
Rachel bowed a little in acquiescence, at least for the moment.