This story is by Kevin Urban and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Leafless November trees arched over the path, lifeless yet alive, as my siblings and I approached the Baron’s estate. Gretchen’s thirteen-year-old face looked cheerful as she tested the bow in her hair. Peter, eleven, played with a curtain’s tassel that swung from the carriage window.
Miss Ostrom slapped Peter’s hand. “Don’t force me to take you back to the orphanage.” She skewered us with her eyes. “Behave!”
Our fear of her shook us like the trot of the horses over the ruts of the road. I looked forward with hope to the secluded mansion that drew nearer.
We turned into a deep circular driveway. The wheels hissed through the gravel before the carriage came to a halt. The ponderous coachman’s exit rocked the carriage. His steps threshed the stones with the long stride of a tall man. We climbed out and he stood before us. His grey, tired skin hung from a strong frame. His cheekbones stabbed outward like the hips of an old horse, under deep-set irritated eyes. He turned his slumped, heavy shoulders and walked toward the mansion.
“Children? Prepare to greet your new master.” Miss Ostrom nodded. Her pointed chin had the menacing promise of a ruler striking my knuckles.
I tilted my head back and viewed the magnitude of the gothic fortress. Dark lichen-splotched sandstone blocks rose skyward. At its highest, the walls seemed to lean over me against the passing clouds. The windows mirrored the blackened stone like the many eyes of a spider.
Three Doberman Pinschers appeared from the right side of the mansion. They whined with excitement, stopping near the Coachman. The largest of the dogs took sight of me. Its elation faded with a low baritone growl.
“Good, Petra.” The driver patted the beast.
The man pounded an iron ring suspended from a lion’s mouth upon a reinforced door; the reverberation quieted the animals.
The entrance opened wide, revealing a stout, apron-clad woman. Near her, a frail elderly man rested in a wicker wheelchair that reclined like a chaise lounge. Behind him, a magnificent staircase spiraled upward. The Coachman walked inside and stepped behind the chair. He took it by its rear handles and pushed it forward. The large spoked tires squeaked with a pitch from which the dogs retreated.
Miss Ostrom ushered us to the doorway. The smell of sour cabbage soup drifted out.
She extended a hand. “This is the Baron Roskavarni. You are fortunate to have such a wealthy master to take you in.”
The Baron’s thin-skinned hand emerged from under a blanket stretched over his knees. His crooked finger motioned us in. “Come close, let me look at my gifts.”
We stepped forward as the woman stretched out a muscular arm toward Miss Ostrom. For once, since the death of our parents, I felt free from her grip.
“Have the Stable Groom take her back,” the old man commanded. He glanced up and back at the Coachman. “You’ve performed well, Burkhart.”
The burly woman pushed Miss Ostrom out. The light faded, and the bolts latched.
The Baron clasped his palms as if sitting before a feast. “Take the two young ones for supper, Magdalena.” He pursed his lips with discernment, reading me through cloudy cataracts. “What is your age, young man?”
“Fourteen, the April last,” I answered as the woman drew my siblings away. I watched them vanish through a great sitting room decorated with portraits and heraldic shields.
The Baron inhaled as if sniffing a blossom. “Ah, to be fourteen again.” His milky marbles rolled in their sockets, calculating as he wrung his hands. He lifted a pointed finger. “Der Transfusium!”
“Jawhol, Herr,” Burkardt answered. He then bore into me with a hawkish gaze. “This way, Erik.”
We entered a room, mahogany-paneled and book-pillared, elegant but musty. A wide band of sunlight entered at a sharp angle. It lit the room and held captive infinite specks of dust. Our movements hurled invisible whirlwinds, sending this nebula into chaos.
Burkhart turned the Baron around and wheeled him back next to a system of glass cylindrical chambers on polished brass pedestals. Rubber tubes hung from a suspension above them, and over an elegant armchair on the other side.
“Schnell! Schnell!” the Baron demanded like a spoiled child as Burkhart marched toward me with the fortitude of an angry schoolmaster. From under my arm, he lifted me like I was a coat to be hung up.
He seated me with a harsh thrust into the chair, then secured me with a belt across my chest. He bound my wrists to the arms of the chair. A putrid odor emanated from his body.
A sinking dread filled me. “What did I do wrong?” I cried.
A mechanical winding sound intensified, as armatures with bizarre lights flashed from behind. It cast our twisted shadows against the wall in front of us, like spirits escaping our bodies. Burkhart’s ghostly image rose upward and back across the ceiling. His phantom arms flailed like tentacles as he operated the strange apparatus.
The Baron writhed with pain but then smiled after Burkhart slid long needles into the old man’s arms. He then turned to me with needles in hand. I wrenched against the straps, knowing his intentions.
In between us and under the glass cylinders, an accordion-like bladder rose and fell with respiration. A suction tugged at me with each gulp of air it commanded. The chamber next to me filled with bright red blood in spurts that matched the throb of the breathing machine. The Baron’s was a vile brown that oozed like gravy. A tube extending from it led to my right arm. My mind swirled, and all went black.
I awoke with the fear of a nightmare. The glow of a candle now replaced the swatch of natural light. The Baron stood. No longer a sickly man, he rubbed his arm above a clenched fist, “You are a rhapsody of vitality.”
“What did you do to me?” I demanded with the little strength I had left.
He rolled a shirt sleeve down and gave a knowing nod to Burkhart, who exited.
A horrid image flashed within me; a boy, boney and limp. His body tossed into a shallow pit, like a rag doll. His limbs twisted like the strands of a wet mop. Facedown, he flopped before shovels of dirt splashed over him.
“Agh!” I exhaled. My eyes searched the room for an explanation. A trickle of sweat bled from my scalp.
“Shush.” The Baron placed a finger to his lips. “I see you are already experiencing my memories. Oh, Erik, the things I have accomplished, and you will live them over again as Burkhart has.”
The sound of a chamber orchestra played in my head. A vision of an elegant woman wearing a gown flashed before me. She smiled with a promise of love. Then the music stopped, and she lay across a bed. A scream filled my ears. Bare bosom, and with bulging eyes, veiny hands clutched her neck.
“Stop choking her!” I cried as my eyes must have stared somewhere beyond.
“Ah, the Viscountess Von Schlägl, perhaps?” The Baron frowned with pity. “I am not proud of everything I have done.” Then he shrugged. “Some of which I have forgotten… It has been so many millennia.” His sadness faded. “But, I feel your youth and optimism coursing through me, now.” He raised a fist. “Fantastisch!”
The Baron paced. “I understand Petra has taken a dislike to you. I doubt you could reach the gate before she had you by the throat… But, if you made it… Boys are clever that way, you would end up in the hands of Miss Ostrom once again, which would lead you back to me.”
“Please, don’t hurt my sister and brother,” I sobbed, looking downward.
The Baron paused. “Yes, little, Peter,”—he side glanced—”who would have to take your place if you vanished.” He blinked with satisfaction. “And, sweet Gretchen, she’s almost a woman, you know.” He leaned toward me with crystal clear eyes. “Don’t give me a reason to use them!”
I bobbed my head in agreement, fighting down the sickness of his rotten blood.
“That’s better,” the Baron answered. “You need your strength, or should I say… I need it.”
My jaw gaped and my innocence flew from my throat with a prolonged howling shriek that echoed through the mansion.
The child in me died. I slumped in the chair. My limbs, like those of the trees, hung lifeless yet alive as the Baron removed my straps.
“This is only the beginning.” He took a deep breath. “Ah, cabbage soup, it purifies the blood.” The Baron placed a gentle hand upon my shoulder. “You will come to accept it as they all have. Now, you must eat, for we will be together for many years… And one day, you will take Burkhart’s place.”