Look How Cold My Hands Are
Look how cold my hands are.
– Last reported words of Báthory Erzsébet, 8 August 1560 – 21 August 1614.
Erzsébet was at her desk. “Have you tallied the day’s costs? The fence around the village paddock, the church fees.”
Church fees again.
Costs were relentless for the Báthory estate. And a relentless aggravation.
“Yes, Countess.” The simpleton, Fickó, crinkled his face into a frown. He sat sprawled on the floor with the parchment between his knees.
Erzsébet rubbed at her temple. “And then incomings?”
There were always fewer of those.
She picked at the cold roast lamb on the tray at her elbow and calculated the monies for collection. “Payments owed on our castle at Beckov. Sales from the hemp crops. Use the coarser parchment for your workings, Fickó.”
She pulled a quill from the quiver of ink and wiped it on the cloth at her elbow. Then she trimmed the candle wick and returned to her letter.
To Ferenc Batthyány, December 30, 1610
May God bless you in all your endeavours. We are arrived at Csejte manor this eve, not yet advancing to the castle.
In the depth of winter, the castle took longer to warm. Erzsébet would save on firewood if she could.
We saw many of the poor by the roads. But all follow loyally our King and saviour.
She grunted when she wrote that about the king. The Slovak witch, Erzsi Majorova, had taught her many curses. She cursed the king now.
By God’s grace, my health improves. The headaches and visitations of which I wrote previously have lessened.
It was mostly true, though the pain in her left eye was almost constant these days.
I trust it is your considerate words and the careful ministrations of my healer, Anna Darvulia—
“Another letter, Countess?’
Erzsébet jumped. “Anna! I didn’t hear you come in.”
Anna gestured. “I see you write to Batthyány again. Does he write back? Or has his young wife stopped him?”
“Business about our adjoining property.” Erzsébet put a hand across her letter. “And I may write to whomever I please. I am the Countess Báthory. My husband was the greatest war hero in the Kingdom of Hungary. My uncle was King of Poland. I am descended from princes in Transylvania! My daughters’ husbands—”
“You are the most powerful woman in Christendom,” Anna supplied.
“Don’t interrupt!” Erzsébet snapped.
She would punish that impudence in anyone else. But she had never punished Anna. They were closer than sisters.
“Which jewels will you wear, Countess?” Anna asked, as if Erzsébet hadn’t spoken. “You never go anywhere without your jewellery.”
“Go? We only just reached the manor—”
But then she heard the heavy footfall of visitors across the stone floors downstairs.
Some superstition shook her. She slipped a wristlet of emeralds and diamonds over her hand, almost by instinct. As if it might protect her.
“That’s what I came to tell you,” Anna replied with a smile. “It’s the Lord Palatine.”
Erzsébet rose to her full height. “The king’s fool! And you let him into my manor without my permission?”
Anna’s smile was cold. It was always cold. “He is the Palatine.”
Second only to the king in Hungary. If the Palatine were here again so soon, it meant the witch’s curse had failed.
Erzsébet checked the impulse to take out her rage on Anna. To hit her hard across the face and leave a grubby stain of ink and blood.
Anna stood unblinking. She was no more afraid of Erzsébet than a stone is afraid of the sky.
Perhaps that explained why Erzsébet couldn’t hit her. Anna was the only one who didn’t fear the wrath of the Countess of Báthory.
“Light a fire in the drawing room,” Erzsébet commanded.
She crossed to her dresser to check her reflection in the copper mirror. Her dark gown was unbuttoned, her pale undergarments stained with sweat and dust. The ride to Csejte had left her skin pinched and red from icy winds.
She smoothed her hands across her face. “They come at midnight? And on Christmas Eve? Parliament is not in session. Can it even be the king’s business they attend?”
Anna moved behind her. “Perhaps they are charged to deploy the king’s debt to your title, Countess?”
Unlikely. The king had owed the seat of Báthory since before Erzsébet’s husband had died.
But it was unusual for the Palatine to be on the roads so late in the year. She hoped it was only about the fighting, some border breach by the unchristian Turks.
She hoped it wasn’t about the allegations against her. Surely she had convinced Thurzó an investigation was unwarranted.
She reached for the powders below her mirror and smoothed a pale tincture across her cheeks. She looked old. It had been a hard year and the king’s debt weighed heavily.
“With what the king owes the seat of Báthory, I could buy nineteen castles. Nineteen!”
“Or you could afford to keep the castles you have,” Anna said. “No more begging Batthyány for assistance.”
“That is not what I was doing!” Erzsébet snapped.
But it was true, she relied on her neighbours more than she wanted to. There were recurring bills for the Nádasdy-Báthory lands, including villages and churches. Her husband, Ferenc, was dead these six years and it was up to her to ensure her children’s futures. Her daughters were provided for, but Pál was the only surviving Nádasdy son, and he was still too young for leadership.
The king must pay his debts.
The king must pay his debts.
… Continued in Cranky Ladies of History, FableCroft