The Countess drops her glass and grasps her throat as the poison tracks spidery lines through the veins on her face.
As you rise from the floor you see the Countess clutching her stomach, blood from the knife wound puckering between her fingers.
You are paralysed as the abysmal mist passes over the Countess, withering her hands to the bone, powdering her chalk-white face into dust.
The Countess de Mar will die on the 13th of February, 1899. It is marked on her calendar. Across the decade that you have been her lady in waiting, she has mentioned it a number of times.
“Yes, I have known since I was a little girl. A woman read it on my cards.” You remember her saying this while you combed out her hair one evening. She was not looking at you as you watched her red mouth in the mirror.
“A most unlucky day, particularly for me.” She said this upon finding out that February the 13th was the date of her brother-in-law’s birth. She has wondered on several occasions if this meant he was to be related to her death in some way, but eventually decided that no gentleman would be so brutish as to murder someone on his birthday.
“I just want to get out… today, of all days.” This is what she told you this morning, looking at you knowingly. You called around all the travel companies on her behalf, looking for something leaving before noon. There was a private cabin available on a steam train going north.
You unload her bags from the carriage and follow her, running your free hand along the gleaming green exterior of the train as you board. The porter is dressed in the little blue hat and jacket of a Great Northern Railway employee. He leads her to your cabin, and you trail after them.
With one foot on the leather seating, you sling the Countess’ bag onto the overhead rack. The luggage shelf collapses, and the bag falls and strikes the Countess’ head.
You store the luggage above your seat. She is looking out of the window, the sunlight bringing out bright whorls of purple on her crushed velvet dress. You braided and pinned her hair yourself, and now it sits in place behind her head like a wheel of licorice. She turns to you, her face warm.
“Daphne, could you fetch my book?”
You nod and drag the luggage back down. As you search for the book, the door opens and another smartly dressed Steward steps in, holding a green bottle and several glasses.
“Madam, some newlyweds have offered a glass of champagne to everyone else in the carriage. May I interest you in one?”
The Countess de Mar’s roulette wheel spins. In this life, you do not fix your mouth over hers, hoping to suck the poison from her system. Nor are the events to follow complicated by a perfectly ordinary glass of champagne rendering the Countess inebriated.
She nods towards the book in your hand. “I get quite the headache when I read while drinking,” she says.
“Very well, ma’am,” the man says, and withdraws from your cabin.
In the lives where she survives thus far, the Countess de Mar usually wins herself half an hour of blissful peace between the intrusion of the Steward and his reappearance to summon the pair of you to lunch in the dining car. She reads her book, and looks out of the window at the sunny countryside. You read yours, but mostly watch her until the time comes to leave paradise.
In some of her lives, the Countess de Mar is one of two siblings, and her death would make her sister the sole inheritor of the de Mar fortune. And in an unfortunately high number of his lives, the Countess de Mar’s brother-in-law is indeed brutal enough to murder someone on his birthday.
Sometimes, he attempts to do the dirty work himself, either by sending the Countess the poisoned wine or by stabbing her in the dining car. A handful of times, his brutality is matched only by his short-sightedness, and the man he has hired to kill the Countess misses the train. In this life, the Countess de Mar’s younger brother survives childhood, and nobody is waiting to attempt to or succeed at skewering her with a bread knife over lunch.
In this life, your misfortune instead crosses paths with the misfortune of Professor Robert Henry Ward, an archaeologist returning to the north with a mysterious crown he unearthed in the great bog near Kilmartin. In some lives, it is merely a crown. In others, the apparition possessing it is a run-of-the-mill ghoul. In this life, it is not.
The steward leads you to a seat in the middle of the dining car, with a good view of the window. You appear to pore over the menu meticulously. You are waiting for the Countess to order first, so that you can order the same. At around the time she decides to order the potato and leek soup, a thin white mist begins to emerge from the crown, creeping between the slats of the wooden crate housing it in the luggage car. At around the time the waiter delivers your order to the kitchen, it has reached third class.
By the time it reaches second class, the blue-uniformed staff are barricading the door to the luggage car. You watch them do it. A white-haired man sitting further down the carriage, unknown to you as Robert Henry Ward, stands to question them. As the waiter begins to bring your soup, the mist begins to seep through the doors. You put your hand on your lady’s arm and tell her to run. There is no life in which she doesn’t listen to you.
She runs for the far door, and you follow her. As you reach it, you turn to look. A wall of wisps shimmer forward, and the white-haired man cries out as he crumples to the floor. His gibbering disintegrates as the mist crosses his torso and into his lungs. His mouth hangs stiff in silent shock, and you know he will never scream again. Your heart sinks as you watch, shadowed by the feelings of other lives.
The lives where Professor Robert Henry Ward sat with the two of you in the dining car and you struck up a friendship – where he accompanied you on the rest of the day – where he witnessed the Countess’ deaths with you. The life where you made it all the way to Lossiemouth only to lose her on the pier, struck down by the Count’s man in the rain. The lives where, after the tragedy of the day, he took you on as his assistant and became like a father to you. In this life, he dies without you knowing his name, but your heart drags all the same until your fear blocks out all other feelings.
The driver’s car is already locked. There is nowhere further for you to take her. Instead, you duck into one of the first class cabins and lock the door. The Countess seems oddly calm. You shove luggage against the gap under the door, hoping that will slow it down. You go to the window and try to open it, but it’s bolted shut.
The mist creeps into the booth, and you feel your limbs begin to seize as it drifts toward the pair of you, towards her.
But you will not allow it. You throw your stiff arm against the glass, beating it, beating it, spider-web cracks snaking out from where you strike. You will not allow it. She does not move, as the glass shatters. The mist is coming.
As you feel your legs begin to give out from under you, you push her out the window and watch her beautiful neck snap against the tracks.
As you feel your legs begin to give out from under you, you drag yourself half-through the fragmented portal.
“Take my hand,” you say. And she does. You jump together and roll across the dirt. Where her neck hit the metal at an angle, now strikes your head. For a moment, your world is colours and pain. As the fog clears, you see that she is already running. You stagger to your feet and run after her. As she hears your footsteps she turns in alarm, but slows as she realises it’s just you. Her face is white.
“I thought you…” she begins.
“Not quite,” you finish.
She takes your hand, and you carry on through the field. Hot, thick blood trickles from your nose. The tall grass comes up to your waist, and your skirt snags and releases, snags and releases as you run. Before you, the grass gives way to rows and rows of blueberry plants just as tall but with space apart for you to run through. The Countess leads you on. You hear a distant call, but can’t make it out. Then a bang.
In the lives where she survives until the end of the day, the Countess de Mar dies of heart failure at one minute to midnight, precisely. Here is where she dies today. James Donaldson, a farmer, has been losing whole plants to thieving youths from the surrounding villages for weeks. Today, he has decided he will not tolerate any more trespassers.
The Countess de Mar’s shoulder explodes in vibrant red, spattering the green leaves, the blueberries, her purple crushed velvet dress. She falls to her knees, frantic but lucid, screeching like an animal.
You try to crawl across the floor to her, but the hired thug knocks you away with a backhand.
You hold a handful of her dust in your fingers as the ends of your body start to feel cold and vague.
Strikes her head, killing her instantly.
The train carries on, leaving her broken body lying on the rails, alone.
You crawl to her and take her hand, as a shot intended for you misses. You hold her head, and meet her tearful eyes. Your vision is beginning to swirl, and her black hair has fallen from where it is pinned, cascading over her sticky wound.
She will die a thousand times in a thousand lives today.
In this one, you will get to tell her that you love her.
The Countess de Mar was first published in 2016 in Temporal Discombobulations, an anthology produced for the University of Surrey’s Time and the Gothic conference. It was later reprinted in Volume 7.4 of LampLight magazine.