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Csejte Castle, Upper Hungary December 30, 1610
The castle door stood partially open, as if in invitation.
From his hiding place amid the shrubbery half a dozen yards away, Count Gyorgy Thurzo eyed the door cautiously.
He didn't like it.
He had planned every detail of this mission, for failure could not only doom his career but bring reprisals the likes of which he'd never seen. Thurzo had informed no one of his intent to visit the castle; the king had merely ordered that he investigate the accusations, a task he could have assigned to one of his own court functionaries. But Thurzo had decided to investigate himself. If the claims proved to be unfounded, he would cull favor with the countess, the widow of his old friend, for having saved her from public embarrassment.
If the accusations proved to be true Well, then, he would be in a position to handle the situation with the delicate hand it would surely require.
He and his men had traveled from the capital only at night, hiding out in abandoned barns and empty groves each morning so that none might see their approach and send word ahead to the castle's mistress, Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The success of their venture depended entirely on surprise; the countess might not be cut from the same cloth as her deceased husband, Ferenc Nadasdya man whose ruthless ferocity on the battlefield had earned him the moniker the Black Knight of Hungarybut Thurzo knew her to be extraordinarily intelligent and cunning, a combination that was apt to make her dangerous.
His group had reached the village of Csejte just before sundown and hidden in a narrow canyon half a mile outside town until full dark. Then and only then had they passed through town and headed up the narrow road that led to the castle proper, sitting atop a hill that overlooked both the town and the surrounding territory. Nearing the castle, they'd dismounted before the final bend in the road, tied the horses to nearby trees and crept forward to their present position: a clump of shrubbery that allowed them to see the castle without being seen.
That door looked like trouble to Thurzo. He hadn't come all this way to be ambushed. Why leave it open?
Thurzo watched the entryway carefully, his gaze returning again and again to the narrow triangle of light spilling across the floor tiles just beyond. If someone was waiting inside the door, they would eventually shift their position, and their shadow would dance across that space, even if only for a second.
But the light on the floor remained steady; no shadow disturbed it, even after waiting several long, tense moments.
Not an ambush, then? A careless servant, perhaps?
If that was what it was, they were in luck. Before setting out for Csejte, Thurzo hadn't known how he was going to gain access to the castle. He'd run through various scenarios, but each and every one of them, aside from clandestinely scaling the walls, had required help from someone already on the inside. He'd had his men pack grappling hooks and ropes just in case, but he'd spent the better part of the journey here praying for another solution.
It seemed his prayers had been answered.
He glanced back at his men, gave the signal and then rose from his crouch and headed for the half-open door at a brisk walk, drawing his sword as he went. If it came to fighting, he would be ready, as would his men; the handpicked fighters following at his heels were some of the best in his retinue, never mind the most trustworthy. They'd been sworn to secrecy for the duration of the mission, and he was confident that each and every one of them would keep their word. He heard more than one blade slide from its sheath behind him, and smiled at the sound.
Thurzo didn't stop when he reached the door but strode in, an excuse about his concern for the countess's safety ready on his lips. The excuse turned out to be unnecessary, though, for the foyer was empty and quiet.
Thurzo waved his men forward. Perhaps it was just a misperception caused by his own unease, but every single man that followed him inside seemed to hesitate, as if aware that crossing the threshold put them on a path from which there was no return.
Real or imagined, Thurzo didn't blame them. What they'd come here to investigate would chill even the most hardened of hearts. And if it was true
If it was true, then God help us all.
The men quickly split into two groups. The first would sweep the upper floors while the second, led by Thurzo himself, would cover the main floor and then descend into the dungeons.
If the rumors were true, that was where he expected to find Elizabeth. Word had reached the king a week hence that she would be gathering tonight with her confidants for one of her dark rituals. Thurzo had come to catch her in the act.
Better me than someone else, he reasoned. At least I will show restraint.
They found the first body less than five minutes after separating from the others.
The young woman lay sprawled facedown against the side of the passageway. She was naked, with long blond hair that was caked with drying blood. A thin, wavering trail of the same stretched out behind her, as if she had been crawling forward on her stomach before her strength had given out.
Thurzo rushed to her side, but when he rolled her over it was clear he was too late; her unseeing eyes stared up at him from her slack face.
He noted absently that she'd probably been quite pretty, but the majority of his attention was drawn to the extreme pallor of her skin and the multiple wounds that covered her chest and abdomen. He stopped counting at twenty. The sheer violence of the act sickened him; who would do this to a woman?
He knew the answer, of course. He didn't want to admit it.
Elizabeth, what have you done?
At first, Thurzo thought the injuries had been made with a knife or dagger, but upon closer examination he could see the wounds were rounded, like those delivered with an auger or some other tool designed for puncturing. They were also deep and had no doubt led to significant blood loss. That alone made him think she hadn't crawled here on her own; someone had been dragging her and dumped her here when they had no more use for her.
After she'd been drained dry.
He shook the vile thought from his head and rose from the body, knowing this wouldn't be the last corpse they would find within these walls.
"Nothing we can do for her," he said quietly to his men. "We'll take care of the body once we've secured the countess. Let's keep moving."
The group continued deeper into the castle. The halls were well lit but eerily empty, and the strange silence lay about the place like a shroud.
Thurzo was familiar with the general layoutone of the reasons he'd been chosen to lead the fact-finding expedition. He had been friends with Nadasdy, Batho-ry's deceased husband, and had often played within the castle walls as a child. He used that knowledge to lead his squad through the various rooms that made up the lower floor with relative quickness until they neared the stairs that led to the dungeons. There they found a second body.
This one was also a woman, though slightly older than the first. She was a brunette and she, too, was naked, making it obvious that the two women had been treated similarly. Thurzo could see the same rounded wounds, the same pale hue to the skin that indicated massive blood loss, the same refined beauty in the woman's features.
His men muttered darkly at the sight, and he knew their mood was changing from apprehension and fear to anger. It was one thing to accidentally kill a woman in the hot blood of battle. It was quite another, however, to ruthlessly murder a woman in one's home. The noble class was not known for its gentle manner toward commoners, but this this was just obscene.
Thurzo rose to his feet, intending to speak to his men, but before he could do so the door to the dungeons proper, just a few feet away, was shoved open. He spun around, sword at the ready, to find himself staring at two older women dressed in dark garments, carrying an injured and bloody girl between them. The way they were holding her, dragging her up the stairs by her wrists, made it clear they weren't concerned with her welfare in the least; she was just another piece of garbage to be disposed of, no doubt the sooner, the better.
The two groups stared at each other for a long second, both nonplussed at being interrupted.
Thurzo recovered first, springing forward and pushing the point of his sword against the throat of the woman on the left, whom he recognized as Dorotya Semtesz, one of Elizabeth's personal servants.
"Put her down, gently," he told them.
For a moment he thought Semtesz might actually try to argue. She glared at him, pretending to dismiss the blade at her throat, but a glance over his shoulder at the rest of his party, all heavily armed and no doubt as angry as he, must have convinced her that arguing was a waste of time. Without a word she lowered the injured girl toward the floor and her companion followed suit.
Thurzo kept his blade on Semtesz'z throat as he said, "Bakos, Kollar, help that young woman. Szabo, keep your eye on her" he indicated Semtesz's companion with a nod of his head "while I talk to this one."
As his men did as they were ordered, Thurzo nudged his captive off to one side, away from the others, with the point of his sword. When they were far enough away for his men not to overhear, he asked, "Where is she?"
Semtesz didn't bat an eyelash as she lied through her teeth. "At her estate in Vienna. She'll be there for a fortnight."
Thurzo knew that wasn't true; he'd had men watching Bathory's other estates for three days, and he knew she hadn't left Csejte.
Kollar interrupted him from behind.
"She's dead, sir."
That made three victims so far.
God help them.
"If Lady Bathory is out of the country, then I suppose this was all your doing?"
Bathory's servant was smart enough to see the trap he'd laid for heradmitting to the crime would mean she was as good as dead, since murder was a capital offensebut she surprised him by nodding in agreement.
"Yes. The girl's death is my fault."
He didn't believe that for a moment, but he also realized the futility of trying to get information out of her when she was all too willing to confess to murder. Anything she said would be suspect, and all of it more than likely designed to delay him from carrying out his real objectivelocating and arresting the countess.
He didn't have time for this.
Thurzo grabbed the woman by the arm and led her back to Szabo, who was keeping an eye on her companion. "Put them in irons," he told his lieutenant. "We're taking them both back to Bratislava to stand trial."
Semtesz glared at him, but he ignored her, his thoughts on who he'd take with him into the dungeon for Elizabeth's arrest and who he would leave behind to guard the prisoners.
He never got the chance to make a decision. Cries for help erupted from down below.
Thurzo didn't hesitate; gripping his sword, he rushed down the steps. The stamp of booted feet on the stone behind him let him know that several of his men were following. At this point it didn't really matter who it was, just that he had some backup.
Torches burned in sconces set into the walls, lighting the way before them, and the group of men quickly found themselves standing in a narrow passageway with rows of cells on either side.
The cells were full of women.
Some held the living. Some held the dead. Some held a mix of the two, and it was often difficult to tell the difference given the terrible state many of the prisoners were in. One glance was all it took to recognize that the women had been tortured. They had been beaten and battered and in some cases bitten, though by whom or what Thurzo didn't know.
He had his suspicions, though, oh, yes.
Unlike the women they'd found upstairs, some of these prisoners needed immediate assistance, and he couldn't just pass them by without giving aid. Leaving the dead to fulfill their mission was one thing; abandoning the living was something else entirely.
Thankfully the doors to each cell were made of wood, rather than iron. That meant there'd be no need to wait for a blacksmith. Thurzo had anticipated the need to smash through a few doors once they were inside the castle, so several of his men were carrying battle hammers.
"Break them down!" he called to his men. "Break them all down. Get these women upstairs and give them what aid you can!"
His men immediately got to work, the wood resisting at first and then splintering beneath the repeated blows. The noise drew the other half of his party from the halls and chambers upstairs, where they'd been searching for the countess, and the added manpower made the job go that much quicker.
Soon his men were entering the cells, leading those who could move up the stairs and into the great hall, where they received as much care as Thurzo's men could provide. Those who were too injured to walk were carried upstairs by one or more of his soldiers; the gentleness these hardened warriors showed to the wounded struck Thurzo deep in the heart.
When the last of the prisoners were upstairs, the bodies were carried out of the cells and lined up in the passageway one after another. Thurzo stopped counting when he reached forty-three.
He'd checked the first few corpsesthose that were reasonably intact, at leastand noted the same kinds of injuries as they'd discovered upstairs. They'd been bled dry like animals brought to the butcher's for slaughter.
His disgust now in full bore, Thurzo stood back and let his men work, his mind wandering to all-but-forgotten days, trying to figure out just where the countess was hiding.
The upper floors were vacant, and they had covered every inch of the lower floors, as well. Lady Bathory had been inside these walls when the night had begun, and Semtesz's behavior seemed to indicate she was still here somewhere.