M. C. St. John
I watched the man running down the road, flailing through the rain, kicking up wild puddles. Lightning flashed. He stopped and stared, wild-eyed, into the woods that thrashed about in the wind.
There—did he see something? The glimmer from a pair of eyes, perched in the branches? It could be an owl, roosting from the storm.
It could be something else.
It could be…
The man spun around and stumbled, squinting through the curtains of rain. His heart triphammering in his chest, no doubt, his muscles burning from strain. A dizziness clouding his vision. He did not have much time.
Thunder rumbled down the mountainside.
It was then I lighted the candle.
The man, holding his wounds, turned toward me. The candle from afar was the friendliest-looking light imaginable. The rosy glow sat in the window of my stone cottage. Nestled against the crags of the mountain, the cottage had lain shrouded in the dripping underbrush. It was late in the hours of this interminable night. No reason to assume anyone would be awake, let alone during this storm.
Yet my light shone, cheery and hopeful.
Had the caretaker sensed danger? The man would think. Why else would this light, so fortuitously, had been lighted as I am so close to death?
The man turned from the road that wound down the mountain to the village. He listed into a trench of dirty water, spat blood, and lurched his way to me.
The smell of woodsmoke filled the man’s nose, I imagined. I had stoked the fire an hour ago. Not only was a lighted candle greeting him—a red candle, it was, dripping freshets of fat—but also the promise of stew bubbling over a happy hearth.
The man collapsed against the cottage wall, used what dwindling strength he possessed to pound the door.
Rather than answer, I loaded my pipe and struck a match.
A gurgling cry. Fingernails against the door.
“Hold your bloody pint…” I muttered and unlatched the door.
Having been at this charade for years, it was difficult to imagine the scene from the other side. What the man, staggered against the doorway, saw while looking at me. A stocky man with pale eyes and graying whiskers, a pipe clamped between his lips. Was I a trustworthy chap? Simple, crude, salt of the earth? Did I appear surprised finding a bleeding man on my stoop?
“You’ve fallen through the hedge backward, haven’t you?” I said.
The man drew in a ragged breath. A difficult task, as he pressed a frilly clump of fabric against his throat. A woman’s petticoat from the look of it, once white but now sopped to a deep red. He smelled the fire and the cooking food, smiled faintly with pleasure and relief.
“T-thank the L-lord.”
“I ain’t much of a cook, but lambs is lambs when stewed in their juices.”
“That is quite a bit of blood. Here.” I pulled a fresh linen napkin from my vest and tossed it to him. “I was to use it for my dinner, but it can be for someone else’s, I suppose. Hold it down to stanch the bleeding.”
The man, thankful but bewildered, took the napkin and pressed it against his neck. The linen immediately turned a purplish red.
Unbelievably, this man waited for me to invite him in, something I never entertained, of course. I usually had to beat back the bastards with my walking stick. This man, however, had manners, even this close to the end. Wonder upon wonders.
“Can’t believe you showing up in this weather.” I drew on my pipe, ruminating. “Normally, the Countess waits for clear nights for this sort of thing. There must have been some kind of, say, mishappenstance at the castle…”
“I’da think you helped yourself plenty already. What did you do to bristle the Countess’s hide? Say the Lord’s Prayer before dinner? Drop a garlic bulb in her soup?”
“Aye, and plenty of it for me, though it’s bound to get cold with this blasted door open.”
I squinted at him, careful to stay out of the rain and away from the blood.
“I’d say you’ve got the cunning about you. Let me guess…a hunter? Brought a cross and a stake and righteous indignation, did you? The Countess does like a tussle every now and then. You thought you’d pull the fast one on her. Tried to sneak down to the crypt, give her the old jab in the heart, and then do the same to her daughters of the night. Well, you haven’t been the first to think it. Won’t be the last neither.”
The man stared at me.
“Mercy?” I tasted the word and didn’t like the flavor. “If you’re looking mercy, try next door.” I gestured toward the bottom of the mountain. “In the village, they believe in that sort of nonsense. Nothing personal to you, stranger, but you best be getting on with the running. It is a hunt, you know. Your last one, more than like. Good evening.”
I shut the door and locked it.
Another fork of lightning shot across the sky, lighting up the windswept woods. The man had taken my advice and run back to the road. Something swooped across the treetops, following him. Something with glowing eyes.
It was no owl.
Later, after dinner and another plug of pipeweed, I sat staring into the dying fire. I wiped at my mouth, but the smell of lamb stew clung to my whiskers, no matter how hard I rubbed. That napkin I had given the dying man would have come in handy.
A cold wind hissed down the flue.
The flames guttered, and appeared to snuff out. But it wasn’t so. A shadow had unfurled before the fireplace and blocked the already weak light. The shadow loomed before me.
“Worsley,” the Countess Rosalind said.
I stumbled to attention. “Your dark lordship. And how were your, activities, this fine and gloomy evening?”
The Countess herself did not walk so much as float. From the hem of her black gown a vapor constantly poured and obscured her feet. I wasn’t so sure she had feet. Perhaps only claws. She glided on that personal ground fog of hers to my table.
I followed, tripping over my own feet.
“I reckon so, madame. That man was as lame as a gelded sheep, he was. He didn’t have much fight in him when he made it here. You and your daughters had done him a mischief, from the looks. A mighty good bite, mighty—”
“These need burning.”
The Countess flicked open her black cloak. From her arms—her pale, beautiful, perfect arms—she dumped a wet pile of clothes on the table. The man’s clothes. She flung a pair of sodden boots next to the pile. The soles had been worn clean through. A heel poked out from the right boot.
The man’s heel.
“Of course, your lordship. I’ll build a bonfire as soon as the rain clears to—“
“You will burn them now.”
“…in the hearth? I must say, it’ll stink something awful if I was to do that now…”
I had every intention of going on, but I suddenly felt an icy grip around my throat. In a blink, the Countess had moved across the room to mere inches before my face. She lifted me off the floor with one hand. Her eyes burned like a wild animal’s, her black tresses of hair writhing about her pale face.
The bit of breath in my throat escaped in a swooning sigh.
So close to death, but so beautiful.
“You will do as I say, Worsley. Or have you forgotten our arrangement?”
I used my waning strength to shake my head. No no, I would never forget. The Countess was my master, my dark lord, mon pâle amour.
“Then you will be obey my wishes.” She bared her fangs. “There can be no evidence of this man on our premises. He is more than a nuisance. He is a threat.”
“Buh ishin hee deh yo lo shi?” I gurgled.
The Countess narrowed her eyes. “Speak clearly,” she said, and dropped me to the floor.
I collapsed against a stack of firewood. Cords tumbled. Gripping my chest, I sucked in enough air to annunciate. “But…isn’t…he…dead…your…lord-ship?”
“I am also dead, yet I pose a significant threat, do I not?”
I kept quiet as my answer, feeling the blood pulsing behind my eyes. The Countess could no doubt hear it move through my veins. The blood she could so easily squeeze out of me as water from a scullery maid’s dishrag.
“The man,” she continued, “failed in his ultimate goal to usurp me. He weaved his wiles and worked his charms, but those weapons proved futile.”
“So he was a hunter. I knew it. I can smell that lot from a mile away. Bold as brass, they are, believing them to be the protégé of the mad Van Helsing himself. Cocksure and stupid.”
I hobbled back up. My right knee had gone wonky.
“Little do they realize that they’re no match for you, Countess, nor your daughters. If they make it out of the castle, they never make it past this cottage. I make sure of it. Especially the hunters.”
“He was no hunter.”
The Countess had glided to the window. She stood before the crimson candle, my signal light for her and her kind. She watched the tiny flame flit on the wick. Outside the rain lashed against the window. The Countess cast no reflection in the glass. There was only the storm.
“No,” she said, “not unless the game was for my fancy. He was a suitor.”
I nearly collapsed again.
The table steadied me. I found myself studying the clothes on the table. The jacket, torn and covered with gore as it was, had been finely tailored; a scrap of pant leg finely seamed; the bedraggled boots finely stitched. I peered at the heel. Clean, well-moisturized, and free of gout. A suitor for the Countess. Him.
“The petticoat,” I whispered. “He held your petticoat to his wound.”
A smile flickered across the Countess’s wintry face. “Isolde’s, in fact. She has always had a taste for Spanish men. Even when I told her this one was off limits. He was a high duke with a Moorish castle on the coast.” The smile died. “I would have liked living by the sea as a duchess.”
“But your lordship, you hadn’t told me you wanted to leave.”
My mind whirred—the petticoat, so soft, in the clutches of a cretin. Isolde, that undead tart, had intervened for her own hungers. But what if she hadn’t? Would the Countess—my Countess—have lain with such a man? Would she have latched on to his neck and given him eternal life?
“You hadn’t told me that these men were…suitors…at all. I thought they were prey.”
“What is prey if not for the thrill of the hunt?”
The Countess blinked. The candle extinguished.
“Many of them were prey, in those years after I had bewitched you, Worsley.”
“It was a gift, my lordship. One I honor even tonight.”
“And a servant you still are. The most servile of familiars. Helping to trap men, helping to guard the castle and the crypt, helping to feed me and my daughters.”
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
My smile felt like a gash cut across my face. The bodies I had burned, the flagstones I had scrubbed of entrails—and for what? To watch a duke waltz in and take my place? It was unconscionable. I deserved more. I deserved the Countess.
“Some deeds take longer than others.” She sounded centuries younger, a coquette in the springtime of her becoming.
“Against my better judgment, the yearning grew for a dark lord with which to share this eternity. I began entertaining the notion while on the attack. Could this man I had planned to feast upon be my paramour? Would that man attempting to outrun me for his life be the one to run circles around my cold, cold heart? The questions twitterpated my thoughts. Have you known such a feeling?”
“Once,” I said, “and only once.”
“Then you know that it does not abate until it is satisfied. Which is why I had begun writing letters to other kingdoms, imploring for potential men of status.”
“That was what was in those letters? The bundles I carried by donkey down to the village? Letters beseeching men to visit our castle?”
Lightning filled the window, and a disgruntled whimper of thunder followed.
“Are you crying?” she asked.
“No.” I wiped my eyes, coughed to clear my raw throat. “I’m recovering from your grip. Such incredible strength overwhelms me.”
The Countess did enjoy that bit of flattery. “A similar sentiment came from Duke Armando Marqueza. He was smitten by my conversational wit and the gilded features of my banquet hall. A shame he found Isolde’s features more alluring in her bed chamber.”
“The folly of passion,” I said. “Devotion—now there’s a quality for lasting love.”
“But it must start with a spark. I have seen many men throughout the years. Few have had such flint for my tinder.”
The Countess blushed, as much as a creature as she could. More of a darkening of the features. I felt my heart ache against my ribs.
“My experience comes from time,” she said. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“If given the chance…and your patience…I could.”
“Is that so?”
“It isn’t like me to bring it up at all, let alone with cremating to do for chores.” I shuffled toward her on my bum knee.
“But begging your pardon, madame, I have spent nigh forty years living alone in this cottage, tending to you and the daughters. Forty years for my whiskers to go gray and my eyesight to go foggy. Forty years of the villagers spitting at my wagon when I run errands and old crones casting evil eyes at my back. And I never wavered in my devotion.”
“You wish for a reward.”
“The ultimate reward,” I said. “I don’t know how much longer I’ve got in years of the human variety. I want to serve you forever.”
The Countess arched an eyebrow. She considered me, her opal eyes gleaming. Was it the expression she gave Duke Marqueza? The flicker of passion that heretofore had not been ignited in her breast? I wanted it to be, I did, I did. She must have seen that I had been a creature to her comforts, the familiar who was more than familiar to serve her.
“I see,” she said.
“I gather.” She ran her tongue along her teeth, treading lightly around the pointy ones. “I wasn’t expecting to have this conversation tonight, not with this task in hand.”
“But will you consider it? Please?”
I supposed I had gone down the road far enough. What was more step? I grabbed my walking stick near the woodpile. Leaning on it, I eased myself down onto my good knee. If I be a toady to my queen, may I be the best damned toady I could be.
It didn’t slip past me that the gesture was what she had wanted dukes and lords and other petty suitors to perform before her. On bended knee, may I ask for thy hand…?
But instead of fawning, a wave of disgust rippled across the Countess’s face. A trick of the firelight and the rain running down the window? Oh, how I wanted it to be. But in my heart, I knew. Like love, the truth lay naked on the face of those who felt it in the moment.
“Yes, yes, I’ll consider it,” she said, “but only after you do my bidding.”
Within a flash of lightning, the Countess swept away my walking stick and lifted me again with one statuesque arm. Gentle this time, her touch, but cold, so very cold. She then glided away from me on her gray cloud.
“Dispose of what’s left of the former duke,” she said.
I slouched. “Yes, your dark lordship.”
“And afterward, dispose of the ashes.”
I hung my head. “Yes, your dark lordship.”
“And when you’re done with that, come to the castle. There is more of the duke to clean up. And Isolde requires her petticoat mended…and…and…and…”
More commands, more tasks, all under the ever growing list entitled Bidding. I would forever be in need but never needed. I would be forever be of service to the Countess and her brood but never invited into their world.
I nodded with each of her proclamations, spoke with numb lips my acquiescences. My heart and knee throbbed in much the same way while watching the Countess head toward the weak, untended fire. She never turned to look at me again.
“Is all of that understood?”
“Aye,” I said. “It couldn’t be more clear.”
“Good. Do not disappoint me, Worsley.”
The Countess raised her cloak into a pair of shadowy wings. One stroke from them sent a frigid wind through the cottage. As she shot back up the flue, her departure doused the hearth to near-dead embers.
“No,” I said, “I would never want to inflict such pain.”
By the time I finished the tasks at the castle, the darkest of the night had lifted, and so had the rain. The dripping trees clutched at the gossamer clouds turning the color of dawn.
My lower back had stiffened from washing dishes and polishing silverware, as well as boiling bedsheets and scrubbing them of gore. Before leaving, I yelped while hoisting the heavy crypt door into place. Below in the catacombs, Countess Rosalind lay in the sealed coffin I had built for her, a queen among her twilight daughters. The pale and unearthly creatures took to the tides of sleep that would rejuvenate them for another night of hunting and feasting in their long, unending lives.
I envied them.
Leaning on my walking stick with a calloused hand, I lumbered down the muddy path. My bones felt every hour of my forty years of servitude. My body had taken to my tasks even as the questions ate away at my mind and heart.
How long had I been this blind?
What had the Countess seen in me?
Was I special? Or had I simply been a convenience?
It was hard to imagine myself as that young stable boy again, all those years ago. The Countess had killed the family I worked for—I could not remember their names any longer—but she decided to spare me. Cowering in the horse stall, covered in my muck, I had agreed to serve her, and only her. I had been working to please her ever since.
No good deed goes unpunished…
I rounded the bend and smelled woodsmoke from my cottage. Gone was the aroma of lamb stew; now a greasy black smoke belched from the chimney. I had burned the Duke’s garments hours before. Those nicely tailored, blood-spattered clothes had charred on the andirons. The boots had taken longer, the right one especially, what with the Duke’s foot still in it. The woods around the cottage lingered with the stench of overcooked meat.
But as I got closer, I smelled stronger, fresher smoke. Fire flashed in my window. I stood paralyzed with fear. The Duke had had his revenge, I thought. His remains had choked the chimney, and now my cottage that I had refused him would burn to hell.
Except the flames were not burning inside my cottage. The window reflected fire that was outside. Fires, in fact. The flames flickered from torches, held by the group of villagers that gathered before my door. One of them, a man with a pitted face, turned to me.
“There he is, the weasel.”
Others turned, their faces burning.
“Get him. Grab the old bastard.”
“Don’t let him get away.”
“Make sure he don’t slither into another hole.”
Several men ran up to me. A young man with a wine-colored birthmark knocked away my walking stick. I fell into a ring of rough hands that dragged me to the cottage. They threw me to the ground.
“Please,” I said. “I am so tired. I don’t mean nobody no harm.”
An old crone came up, forked her fingers, and shot me the evil eye. “Foot servant to Satan,” she spat and made to kick me. She stopped only when she saw me flinch. “You serve the Countess Rosalind and her whores of Beelzebub.”
“I did, I did.”
In my tumble, I had spilled my pipeweed, a provision provided by the Countess herself for me. For my service. I had packed it in my bowl while the Duke bled on my doorstep. Now flecks of that same pipeweed tumbled out as I lay on my doorstep where the Duke had hours ago.
“But I didn’t know. I was under her control. I-I was b-bewitched…”
The villagers buried me in swears and curses and threats. From the mob, the man with the pitted face pointed at me.
“We stayed away for years, afraid of this road and this castle. But we are fed up with these creatures slaughtering men. Rich men, from faraway places, who could help our village.”
“…H-had I known he was a Duke…I w-would have d-done things differently…”
“Would you have burned the body in the woods rather than your hearthstones?”
“Understand, please. I had been tricked by the Countess for so long…”
I sobbed genuine tears into the mud. In my mind, it was the muck from the horse stall at the start of it all, when I pledged my undying devotion, out of fear, out of love. The mob watched me. Finally, the crone spoke.
“If you repent, then will you help us?”
“Tell us how to get into the castle,” the man with pitted face said. “Tell us how to get to the crypt where these demons sleep.”
I peered up at them from the mud, at their faces, dancing with flames. What could I say to them other than the truth? It was the only way I saw out of this mess.
So I told them.
By the end, they had a detailed map of the castle and its hidden passageways and secret traps. I gave them the keys to the crypt door, and warned them of the dark corners, and advised them on methods of prying open the coffins and plunging in the stakes.
The more I talked to the villagers—to people, to mortals like myself—the more I filled the gulf of years I spent away from them. I had tried for so long to be the Countess’s one and only, her beloved, and failed, but not for trying. But what of the village? Down the mountain, at the end of this twisted road, I had a chance to walk into the company of men and women for a different life, if not for an eternity, at least for a comfortable number of years.
When I finished, they were satisfied. The man with pitted face beckoned the crowd.
“Come, while the sun is rising, let us root out the Countess and her brood.”
And the mob, armed with knives and torches, wreathed in garlic and silver, carried on up the road toward the castle. They had everything they needed to destroy my master, my queen. It was a bitter satisfaction, but satisfaction nonetheless.
As I watched them go, I hobbled up to stand among them. My wonky knee kept me from standing fully upright. I reached for the young man with the birthmark, the one who had taken away my walking stick. The young man held it like a soldier’s saber on the warpath.
“Please, might I have my stick back? I will need it on my walk to the village.”
The young man stopped and stared down at me. His birthmark darkened his pale face as the Duke’s blood had on my linen napkin. “Why would you go down there?”
“I will no longer serve the Countess. I will be free to rejoin my fellow countrymen. I will find a new place to live out my days—“
He struck me with walking stick.
I fell back into the mud.
“Shut your mouth from that talk, or I will kill you before we kill your master.”
My vision clouded. I saw blood and winged shadows. None of them was the Countess. She would not come to save me either.
“You are a monster,” the young man said. “No monster like you will come back with us.”
He raised my stick again. When I gibbered and raised my hands, the young man spat and turned away. The crone was nearby. She too turned and spat, giving me one more evil eye.
I watched the line of torches, like a lit fuse, run its way toward the castle. I called after the villagers out of desperation, a monstrous cry from these wild, wild woods.
“But where will I go? What will happen to me?”
I heard them rip open the castle doors. Their fire glowed inside the fortress, down to the crypt, down to the coffins, down to my betrayal.
I tried to rise from the mud, but my broken body stopped me. I inhaled sharply and smelled only death.
But I didn’t know who I was calling out to for it. I was alone.
M.C. St. John is a writer living in Chicago. He is the author of the short story collection Other Music. His stories have appeared, as if by luck or magic, in Burial Day Books, Dark Ink Books, Nightscript, Flame Tree Publishing, and Wyldblood Press. He is also a member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers, serving as co-editor for the horror anthology Recurring Nightmares. See what he’s writing next at www.mcstjohn.com.