GLEICHENBERG

“We are witches; we want to suffer punishment and be executed,” howled the chained women. There were about forty of them, excessively made-up and dressed in brightly coloured rags. Count Trautmansdorff, the illustrious lord in charge of life and death in Styria, watched them doubtfully.

He knew these peasants, these farmers. He had vaguely heard of the network they had formed throughout the region, that they met nightly to go deep into the forest to engage in bacchic dancing and intoxication. It seemed to him they were in search of eternal youth. As a matter of fact, they went more than a little mad.

Perhaps they abused the hallucinogenic herbs or the hot springs with strange powers that gushed from the ground full of half-dead volcanoes. Molten lava was not far off. The earth possessed powerful properties here and there, both good and bad, and the healing springs released a mist all year long that obscured the skies and the spirits alike.

Count Trautmansdorff knew the witches almost from birth. He was an infirm baby, the last of his race and condemned to die an early death. One day while on a stroll through the forest with his nanny, they happened upon a bohemian woman who spoke of a thermal spring lost since Roman times, which, thanks to her, had been rediscovered.

The infant was cured, and his grateful parents offered the bohemian woman a large gold chain. Their bloodline was now assured because the young Trautmansdorff indeed went on to father many children. Over the years, he became one of the most important collaborators to Emperor Ferdinand II and one of his most famous and loyal generals.

One day, while exercising his role as judge at his castle of Gleichenberg, the guards threw an old lady in rags at the feet of his throne. She was charged with enough crimes to send her to the stake. “Save me as I saved you,” she croaked as she removed a gold chain from her bodice, which Trautmansdorff recognised immediately. It was the bohemian woman who had cured him as an infant. Obviously, he let her go, and now, a few years later, he found himself having to try these witches who were also not quite guilty.

The trial took place in the great hall at Gleichenberg. The castle had since fallen into ruins and become the prey of ivy, tree branches, and creepers. But these parasites failed to destroy the five-meter-thick wall built to withstand the artillery of King Ottokar of Bohemia. And they did not undermine the Italianate grace of the loggias in the main courtyard.

An unbreakable structure, from atop its hill, Gleichenberg maintained that same impressive silhouette from afar as it did in Count Trautmansdorff’s time. He continued to thoughtfully contemplate the mad, grotesque women who had accused themselves of non-existent crimes and asked for a punishment he wished to spare them, for he knew very well they were completely harmless.

But present at the trial was the church’s representative, the priest, who wanted his prey. He ensnared them with his questions, lured them into a trap, and subtly pushed them into accusing themselves of increasingly serious crimes. They were just about convinced they engaged in black magic and satanism. Up against this religious fanaticism, Trautmansdorff could not save those who refused to be saved, and he was forced to condemn them despite himself. 

One after another, the forty women, with the tip of a sword at their backs, were pushed into the grand hall where an opening overlooked the castle well. They were thrown alive into the bottomless pit, where their cries would resonate long after their voices had died out. Amidst the cracked walls and collapsed ceilings, this dark, menacing well still exists, perfectly intact.

Since the day the witches were thrown into it, misfortune has permeated Gleichenberg. A few generations later, during a war against the Turks, twenty-one corpses of the Trautmasdorff family were brought back to the castle after a battle. At the end of the last century, it was Countess Trautmansdorff – as beautiful as the witches were ugly – who sought, like them, the secret to eternal youth and who could never console herself for not having found it. 

The late witches were intimately acquainted with her husband, causing a racket in his room, opening the doors and windows. When the unfortunate man visited Vienna, he couldn’t sleep as the silence of night away from his castle seemed unusual to him. He thought he could silence the ghosts by throwing cement into the well, covering up their bones. But that did not stop them for a moment, to the point that his son constantly saw the large Renaissance chests move on their own and found doors mysteriously locked. 

His niece, Rosa, was reading in the garden one day, waiting for the lunch bell, when she saw a grotesque older woman dressed in red and green. The woman passed in front of her, climbed the rampart, and appeared to fall off on the other side. But there was no one there when Countess Rosa leaned over to look. Some time after, while visiting a church in a nearby village, she came across a painting of women dressed exactly like the woman she had seen. “They are the witches of the trial,” the priest explained to her.

After the most recent war had left the castle in a lamentable state, the Russian occupier destroyed these paintings in particular. Yet, a Hungarian refugee, one Count Hunyadi, nevertheless agreed to spend the night at the castle for lack of a better option. Still, care was taken to nail the doors of his room shut. The following morning, he would declare that entire crowds had come through, that he had heard the growling of dogs and horses, though the castle was, in fact, empty. Heavy chests were pushed up against the doors, and halberds were crossed against the windows. The next day, the chests and halberds were found in the middle of the room. “I saw much worse during the war,” Count Hunyadi philosophically noted.

A few years ago, the current owner’s mother, Countess Annie Stubenberg, was awakened in the middle of the night by the anxious voice of her doctor, who asked to speak with her on the phone. “Was that you, Gräffin, walking through the park?” He said that while driving through the forest, he had seen a woman curled up at the edge of the road in an Empire-style nightgown, with a cap pressed down to her eyes. Believing there had been an accident, he stopped to check. The woman immediately leapt up, jumped a wide ditch, and hurried into the forest towards the castle.

Nowadays, tourists venture into the ruins despite the prohibitions and often complain to Countess Annie of being attacked by stones thrown by invisible hands. It is because, in fact, the witches want to be the sole mistresses of Gleichenberg, so much so that the castle has been burned three times in the last thirty years, making it impassable. “The witches no longer want it inhabited,” Countess Annie comments. Thanks to this, peace and hope have returned to the descendants of the great judge, Count Trautmasdorff.


by  Prince Michael of Greece

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