Another Excerpt from The White Lady of the Hohenzollerns – Now at Amazon
Chapter I: 1598
Altes Schloss, Berlin, Germany
Being the head of the House of Hohenzollern had its perks, one of which was having the power to summon your friends, relatives and neighbors to attend a banquet that you were throwing just for the heck of it. When John George sent out invitations for a banquet to be held on January 8th, 1598, his guests obediently came to the Schloss despite the heavy snow and bad weather and worse roads because they genuinely liked or feared him and because they knew that he knew how to throw a party. Alcohol and food were served in plenty and everyone had an uproarious time. Even the servants got drunk and made merry, for he was a kind master who liked to see people enjoying themselves.
When it was close to midnight, the banquet still showed no sign of ending, so extra torches and candles were placed throughout the enormous hall. It had an eerie quality, perhaps because the lethal Iron Maiden had been placed in a prominent spot, perhaps because the tapestries showed Medusa turning men into stone with a darkling look. Wine flowed like water and guests thirstily gulped it down, blissfully unaware that it had been stored in a dungeon. Once everyone was thoroughly and joyfully inebriated, she entered the hall. She walked very slowly, as if she were walking through deep water and as if each step was a tremendous effort on her part. She wore a demure old-fashioned white mourning dress, white gloves, a white cap, and a double white veil, half of which hid her face from view while the other half flowed down her back like the train of a dress. Although she did not make a sound, she seemed distressed as well as unearthly, so everyone fell silent. People flinched when she walked past them and they shivered from the icy cold air that surrounded her.
“Get rid of her at once or else,” John George ordered his court chamberlain, who staggered to his feet and sallied forth against the invader. John George hoped that her husband hadn’t died in his service and even more fervently hoped that his relatives hadn’t murdered her husband or her child or her entire family. He also hoped that none of his relatives had disrupted the funeral procession of any of her loved ones by jumping their horses over the coffin. Finally, he wished that his guards would finally learn to stop women from getting close enough to him to make petitions unless they were young and pretty and cheerful. He couldn’t say what this woman looked like thanks to her veil, but he thought it was painfully obvious that she wasn’t cheerful. He could also see that her white mourning dress wasn’t clean. A lovely smiling girl would be given a handout, but a depressed woman wearing dirty mourning clothes, well, perhaps a convent was the best place for her. He looked around for his chaplain and glumly saw that his man of God had passed out with his Bible in one hand and a silver tankard in the other. He sighed and resigned himself to hearing a gloomy story. As she came closer, he squinted at the stains on her clothes and realized with a rising sense of horror that they were bloodstains.
“My lady, what are you doing here? This is a private banquet for the Elector and his chosen guests,” said his chamberlain in a drunken voice that was meant to be authoritative. As he attempted to block her path, the chamberlain lost his balance, tipped over like a falling tree, and fell into a sodden unconscious heap on the floor.
The eldritch creature serenely continued her walk until she reached the edge of the dais, where she froze. John George rose from his seat and felt icy cold air swirling around her like a cloud. A chill ran down his spine and the skin on the back of his neck prickled. He sensed that he should speak kindly and gently to her, but he’d drunk a good deal and was at a loss for kind and gentle words. If he’d been faced with a belligerent and bellowing man, he could have shouted him down with ease, but he had no idea what to say to a lost soul like the woman who stood before him.
She broke the silence by speaking first. Her voice was low, sweet, and hesitant, as if she hadn’t spoken for a long time. “Veni, judicos vivos et mortuos: judicium mihi adhuc superest,” she said, and each careful word sounded like an ancient Greek tragedy in and of itself. She curtsied to him, turned, and walked out of the hall.
The baffled and bewildered John George shook his head like a wet dog and then spoke for the entire House of Hohenzollern, none of whom had ever willingly read a book in their lives: “Does anyone know what that woman just said?”
The Palatine, who was a voracious reader as well as the proud owner of the most magnificent private library in Europe, smiled sardonically and translated her speech: “I am come to judge the living and the dead. My own fate is uncertain.”
Pandemonium broke out. The guards and sentries were summoned and questioned by the irate John George himself. They swore that they hadn’t seen a woman dressed in white enter or exit the Schloss. They also swore that they hadn’t seen her go into the hall and that they hadn’t seen her leave it either. John George berated them for their stupidity and worthlessness and ordered them to search the Schloss and find the mysterious woman and bring her to him at once or else. It was a fine bit of shouting on his part, and he watched with furious satisfaction as they rushed away to obey his orders.
Everyone agreed that they’d never seen the woman before, that they’d never seen such strange clothes except in old portraits, and that her veil was so opaque that it was no wonder she’d walked so slowly given that she probably couldn’t see where she was going. Some questioned whether the strange figure had really been a woman, and they talked darkly of pranks played by pageboys who didn’t have enough work to do. More than a few frightened people said that she must have been a ghost. Many other people were angry at her for having suggested, in Latin of all languages, that she or any other woman, dead or alive, had the right to judge a Hohenzollern. Squabbles broke out as squabbles often did whenever Hohenzollerns got together. Before the squabbles could come to blows, the Palatine cleared his throat and everyone turned to look at him, because when a Wittelsbach wanted to be the center of attention, a Wittelsbach could always make himself the center of attention.
“All of you should have a drink and settle down,” he said with a grin, and then he set a good example by draining his goblet to the dregs. Everyone followed his advice and felt better for it, so they cheered the Palatine, drank to his health, and predicted glorious futures for his posterity, whom, they claimed, would someday rule the entire known world. Drinking songs started, only a few wavering beery voices at first, until, slowly, more and more people joined in.
As his guests lost themselves in off-key song, John George sat silently in his carved and gilded chair on the dais. His encounter with the unearthly woman had left him stone cold sober as well as deep in thought. He was truly puzzled by her appearance as well as profoundly embarrassed by the way he’d handled it. He wished that he’d tried saying something, anything, to her. He was not a cruel man: he’d hated watching her creeping defeated walk, had hated seeing her bowed head as she struggled to speak, and was ashamed of his inability to understand or help her. He abruptly rose from his chair. “From this day forward, all Hohenzollern boys must have some Latin beaten into them every morning or else,” he said in his most threatening voice, and he had the pleasure of seeing every Hohenzollern in the room jump a foot into the air.
As he sank back down into his seat, he had an ominous feeling that there would be a grave price to pay for his failure to help the grieving woman. He suddenly felt a leaden sensation in his chest as if his heart had stopped beating. He tried to lift his hand to check his pulse and discovered that he couldn’t move his arms or his hands or even his fingers. He tried blinking his eyes and couldn’t make his eyelids obey his will, tried calling for help and found that he had no voice and no breath. His body felt totally numb and he knew with sudden crisp clarity that he was dying or was already dead. His last thought was one of gratitude that it didn’t hurt when he fell out of his chair onto the dais or when he fell down the steps of the dais and landed in front of the leering Iron Maiden that had been painted to look like the gentle Virgin Mary. The last thing that he saw before his sight went black was the snake-haired woman in one of his new tapestries, who seemed to be laughing at him.
The White Lady of the Hohenzollerns had claimed her first victim.