Free Read: "The Witch of Budapest" from the Winter Witches Uncollected Anthology!
The days are getting colder, and winter’s magic is coming. What better time to share a little tale with you?
This story is set in the universe of the Lady Lazarus WWII urban fantasy series. It tells the tale of how the last of the Lazarus witches, Magda Lazarus, said farewell to her mother, and hello to the notorious vampire Lord Bathory in Budapest in 1936.
Please check out the other stories in the Uncollected Anthology!
The night after my mother died, I met her in my dreams, in a dark wood.
And I was furious.
It was 1936. I was sixteen years old, my little sister Gisele was no more than twelve. My father, bless his soul, was already dead. And Budapest was a cruel place for two Jewish orphans to survive, alone.
This was my very last chance to get my mother back, and I knew it. We were witches of the Lazarus blood and creed, but precious little did I know of my people’s ways. My mother had tried to teach me when I was younger, Gisele’s age, but it was already too late. I was wild, and deep down inside my heart I was terrified of the dormant power residing there.
I didn’t know anything of my own powers, me, Magdalena Lazarus, the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter, Lazarus born, untrained in the witches’ arts. But I did know this: a Lazarus of the blood, especially one in full possession of her powers, may summon her own soul back from the dead within three days of her death.
My mother had been dead for less than twenty-four hours. Her burial was the next morning. Once she was buried, even if she wanted to return it would be nearly impossible, as well as horrifying, to return to a corpse interred in the stony, consecrated ground of the cemetery.
I met my mother on the plain of dreams, in a wood I had built from my childhood memories. It was cold, dark. Winter. A wood that rustled with mysterious shadows, one that harbored creatures both celestial and demonic.
“How dare you, how dare you abandon us!” I said, without stopping to embrace her, or kiss her hands, or even to say hello.
My mother Tekla crossed her arms and groaned. “It is so easy to judge when you are an ignorant little fool.”
Mama’s temper almost matched mine. We stood together in the darkness, the dream branches swaying in an ominous wind blowing over our heads in the night. I’m sure we looked like twins, or like a woman in a Picasso painting, staring at her distorted image in a nightmare mirror.
“You never even warned me,” I said, and my fury manifested as a low rumble of distant thunder.
“You are not the queen, and I am not your humble servant,” she shot back.
A wisp of purple cloud trailed across the full moon, above the bare branches. “But why?” I knew I sounded like a weepy little girl now, but I couldn’t help myself. “How will we ever survive without you?”
Mama’s lips trembled and she looked away, at the moon-silvered, shriveled leaves shaking in the birch trees behind me. “You will find the way. In fact, I believe you will flourish, you with your crazy Communist boyfriends and café affairs and wild ways.”
“But what about Gisele?” I hadn’t meant to wound her with my words, not this time, but she drew back with a hiss, like my innocent question about my little sister had drawn blood.
I pressed my advantage. “She won’t last a day without me, Mama. And how can I protect her when I am out on the streets, hunting for money to keep a roof over our heads? We already lost the house, and I cannot pay the rent on the flat, not for even this month. The landlord feels sorry for us, but his mercy will run out long before spring comes.”
When she still didn’t reply, I thought that I had convinced her. “Mama, teach me the spell of return, and I will whisper it over your body instead of Psalms. And even if it hurts like the blazes I will do it, and you’ll be back with us, and we can go on as before.”
“No! The past is the past, Magduska, don’t you understand? How did I ever give birth to such a difficult, pain in the ass, disrespectful…”
I let her words trail away as she went on with her lecture, closed my eyes and listened to the sound of her scolding. I would have preferred to die myself rather than admit it to her, but I loved her rages, loved when she fussed at me and demanded more of me than I could give. Because nobody else I knew expected anything at all of me, for my prospects judged from a conventional angle looked bleak indeed.
My mother saw me in a different light than did the mundane, surface world of Budapest. The darkness of the magical world beckoned to me, even within my mother’s cruel words, and seduced me to follow my mother in search of my inheritance. It was too late for my mother to teach me who I was…I had to find it for myself somehow.
“Come back,” I whispered, soft and inexorable as the winter wind. “Come back to me and to Gisele.”
“You haven’t listened to a single word I said, you stupid child,” she replied. “I told you, I can’t. There is a reason Lazarus witches aren’t immortal you know. All of us let go of life at last. I wanted to show you, but you wouldn’t let me. It’s too late now, the
mission I had on the earthly plane is ended. Let me go in peace, child. Watch after Gisi for me, and I will do what I must in the beyond.”
So this was it. I had failed. I turned to face my mother, tears streaming down my astral cheeks.
“I’m so sorry, Mama. I promise, I will look over Gisele and keep her safe.”
The wind picked up, froze the tears on my face. I wiped them away, strained to see my mother in the cold darkness. But she was already gone. Only the shifting shadows of other unquiet spirits remained.
The funeral. The same surreal, Dali-twisted nightmare that surrounded my father’s burial. It was like it happened the same day, though he had died some seven years before.
The rabbi said his prayers over my mother’s grave in a terrible hurry, like he was afraid of Cossacks attacking. My sister and I stood at the edge of the sandy pit, propping each other up, my sister’s quiet little cry slashing at my heart, slaying me. Only a few ancient members of my family attended the burial, distant cousins and in-laws I hardly knew, standing back, what seemed a million kilometers away.
“We’re alone,” Gisi whispered through her tears as the gravediggers started shoveling the rocks and sandy dirt into my mother’s open grave. “Just you and I are left. You tried to get her back didn’t you? Poor Mama had to go on ahead without us.”
“We’re not alone, never alone,” I said back, my voice full of a false courage I didn’t feel at all. “Our family angels surround us, and Mama herself is watching us from heaven, I’m sure of it.”
In my case, I wasn’t sure she approved of my activities from her celestial perch. But I had to walk my own path now, no matter how much my mother had wished I walked a different way.
I planned to walk into the darkness, and claim it for myself.
The following night, long before the official time of mourning was done, I walked through the damp chill of the Budapest darkness, into the café of vampires at midnight.
It sounds bad enough, the unadorned fact of what I did. But I had come to make my accusations plain, and to demand restitution. What I did was beyond bad. It was insane, many would say suicidal.
But even then, I trusted my ability to return from the dead. I didn’t know the spells, and I didn’t know the way back, but I did know my story on earth was far from ended. Should one of the magicals who haunted the Café Istanbul get the better of me and overcome me, I would return. Unlike my mother, I still shunned the false peace of the grave.
Budapest is a city of cafes. Lawyers, artists, businessmen, all conduct their business over steaming cups of coffee, plates of rumballs, and chestnut puree. Likewise, the magical creatures of my city – the vampires, the demons, the wolves – have their own places of refuge.
Café Istanbul is the place to find vampires. And I had a particular vampire in mind as I walked over the marble threshold and into the gilded lair of the city’s fanged ones.
The vampire Gabor Bathory, nobility of Transylvania, landless now after the terrible losses of the Great War. He whom I had met as a child, he who seemed to stand guard before the mystery of my mother’s death, and who knew the answer of why she would not return.
It was too late now. He could not bring my mother back – only she could have done that, and she had chosen to stay dead. He could not undo what was done. But Bathory could perhaps give me a path forward.
The café vibrated with the lusts of the vampires, like a golden hive. I kept my focus on my footsteps, stayed quiet within myself, contained my fear so deep inside that I could hardly sense it myself.
So intent was I upon my path that I was surprised when a hand roughly poked at my shoulder. “Miss, you cannot enter here,” a rough, French-inflected voice said, almost in my ear.
I looked up to see an elegantly attired man, evidently the maître-d, blocking my ascent up the great curving staircase at the center of the main room. His nostrils quivered with the outrage of my presence, and around me I dimly sensed the focus of the room shifting to this encounter between me and the authority of this place.
“I am here to find Count Gabor Bathory, if I could,” I said, in courteous, formal French.
“You do not need to mangle my native tongue,” the strange man responded in Hungarian. “Look into my eyes, girl! Directly into my eyes. And we will see where your path will lead you.”
Heedlessly, recklessly, I glared into the man’s eyes. Fell deep into the inky black pupils, a world of hidden night. It was then I realized – this imperious man, this host of the damned, was himself a vampire. And he sought to capture me in his thrall.
The word on the Budapest streets, among the human folk, was to never look into a vampire’s eyes. Because then the human soul is lost forever in the frozen darkness of the vampire night. I knew that I was supposed to be enthralled now, that I was doomed to become this waiter’s lamb, a sacrifice to his bloodlust.
Those were the rules we were all supposed to follow. But in the depths I saw the creature’s true name – Gaston – and before I knew what I was doing, I whispered, “No. NO!” and again, “Gaston, I tell you no.”
And the vampire released me from his thrall with a choked gasp. He took a half step backward, and suddenly we stood in the Café Istanbul once more.
“I am not your lamb,” I spat. “I am Magda Lazarus, and Count Bathory once knew my mother. I am here on business with him. Not you. No. Trouble me no more.”
Gaston’s nostrils flared with the outrage. How dare I, a mere mortal girl, challenge an undead master of the night? But we both knew that I was no ordinary girl. And so, unwillingly, Gaston took one step back, then another and another, until the way up the curving staircase loomed before me, clear.
As I walked up the stairway, still in a fuming rage, I heard applause from the mezzanine, and then low, throaty laughter. “Well done, my dear, well done,” called a voice from the landing up above.
I clattered up the rest of the way and looked over my shoulder at the grotesque pageant swirling below. Now that I had survived my encounter with Gaston, I could detect the difference between the human denizens of the café and the vampiric. To the innocent eye, elegant gentlemen and ladies nibbled upon rumballs, drank Turkish coffee, and imbibed sparkling cocktails in fine crystal.
For those with eyes to see, vampires consorted with human victims, willing lambs sacrificing their blood to feed their hosts.
Instead of a social dance, it was a duet to the death, the snake dancing with the mouse.
I shook my head to clear my mind of the true sight of these willing victims and their masters, and turned to face the man who had spoken and laughed before.
“Lord Bathory,” I said. “My mother told me much about you.”
He laughed again, low and rumbling, a pleasant and seductive sound. “Is that so? Come into the shadows so that I may see you clearly, my dear.”
I stepped forward, to where Bathory sat alone at the corner table, his seat a perfect perch from which to survey the dance of souls below. When I looked into the shadows playing behind his slender figure, I imagined I saw the silhouette of a bat, perching in a high place, alone.
“My name is Magdalena Lazarus,” I said. “And my mother, Tekla, is dead.”
Bathory drew back with a gasp, as if I had thrown holy water at his face. “Dead?” he said, his voice shaking now. “It cannot be.”
“Alas, it is true,” I replied. “She died suddenly. The doctor said her heart failed her. I say that she died of a broken heart, though it took her seven years to succumb to her grief.”
“But why? How could such a dark and powerful creature fall prey to the ravages of love?”
“It was my father, sir,” I replied, feeling the pain in my own heart but willing myself to continue. My emotions strained to escape from their prison, but I refused to let them out. “My dear father died seven years ago, of pleurisy. And my mother’s soul followed him from that day forward. My sister and I lost them both the day my father died, but my mother lingered. Until two days ago.”
Bathory sighed. “Who needs love and its cruelties. I am fascinated by the mortal race, I crave contact with your kind. But, my dear, I pity you. You are butterflies, drawn to the light of love, and cruelly extinguished in the flames.”
“Perhaps,” I said. His melodrama made me smile despite my grief. “But I am here not to discuss the frailties of human hearts but to collect upon a debt.”
His eyebrows rose at that. He leaned forward, an expectant expression shimmering over his face like moonlight. “You surprise me. A debt? I make it a point of honor to pay my debts as soon as possible. Surely you are mistaken.”
“Am I?” Despite my cold resolve, my heart beat faster, as if my fear had finally overwhelmed my defenses. “Do you not remember meeting me, sir? For those like you, it must have been like yesterday, though for me it was a lifetime ago.”
“I do not, child.”
“It was in my family’s summer home in Tokaj, in the northern mountains. You had come to visit my mother.”
His eyes flashed with sudden clarity. “You are wrong, my dear. I was visiting your father. He was a wine merchant, was he not?”
“Yes…” I said, trailing off.
“I had business to transact. International business. And your father, Miss Lazarus, was a most congenial and agreeable man.”
I couldn’t help a sigh at that. How I had adored my father…I too had never recovered from his death. “You must be right, my recollection wrong. Funny how children will misunderstand, sometimes.”
“Children sometimes understand more than we give them credit for,” Bathory said, his voice gentle. “My dear, you are in desperate straits, aren’t you?”
He was killing me with his kindness. I blinked my tears back, and bit the inside of my cheek to keep from melting. “I’ll find my way,” I finally said. “I always have, and I always will.”
“Ah, my tender proud girl. I am here, consider me your Uncle Bathory, and I will help you.”
What a noble sentiment. However, even I in my naiveté understood that his offer came with enormous, unspoken obligations attached.
But vampires do not offer even conditional help to mortal souls. He had meant to honor the memory of my mother, and I took it in that light, however much an association with a vampire put me into peril.
I considered a little bow or curtsey and decided against it. “I do not come to seek your help. I seek payment of a debt.” I had to choke the words out one by one, but choke them out I did.
Bathory’s expression changed again, from anticipation to something else, something rather more predatory and dangerous. I realized only in retrospect how close I had come to being snared by his compassion, his solicitude. His seductions were much more compelling than the crude traps employed by Gaston, downstairs.
I had also come dangerously close to insulting him. And insulting a vampire to his face is something that you never want to do.
“A debt,” he said again, his voice brusque now. “Explain my debt and I will repay with interest. But my dear, perhaps your memory fails you once again.”
“I don’t think so.” I took a slip of paper out of my purse and slid it along the surface of the table to the tips of his elegantly-manicured fingertips.
Before I could slip my hands away, his right hand shot out and captured my left hand in an iron grip. “Where did you get this!” he demanded.
His grip tightened. I kept my gaze low and fought the urge to yank my hand away. “My mother’s desk. I was cleaning out her papers, found this slip, and knew that you were my only hope.”
He let go of my wrist and grabbed the paper, flipped it over and read it, folded it into fourths, then opened it and read it again. “I had gotten your father to swear not to commit our business to paper.”
“And I am sure my father honored your request. But my mother…” My voice trailed off and I thought of her again, my beloved mother, so full of fury and grief, so beautiful, so perpetually disappointed by life and by me.
“My mother went her own way, as I am sure you know, dear Count Bathory. She was a witch, a very powerful witch, but she chose to marry an ordinary man, have two little girls, and leave her home village of Tokaj and seek a conventional life in Budapest.”
“You didn’t know your mother in the least.”
His words, spoken so casually, slashed at me more cruelly than could his fangs. “No. Nobody knew my mother better than me.” Only a daughter like me, who had infuriated her mother as thoroughly as I, could know the intimate details of her mother’s frustrations, despair even.
“You have no idea what kind of power your mother held in check.” He laughed once again, an echo of the pleasant, easy laugh that had wafted down to me when I had first arrived at the Istanbul and had my little encounter with Gaston. “You think she was a tired, used up little mother. That her greatest power was to make you potato dumplings when you were mooning about over some boy.”
I blushed to the roots of my hair but I kept my peace, though with difficulty. My mother’s long harangues had taught me to hold my tongue, no matter how in the right I believed myself to me.
“Your mother…” Bathory’s voice trailed off and he sighed. “That lovely, languid creature. She was the Witch of Budapest!”
I could not hold back a gasp at that. My mother, melancholy and brusque and gorgeous and full of a suicidal despair, I loved my mother. But she had never done a single work of magic that I had ever heard of. She had given up all of her magic to have her babies and marry my father. It was something of a scandal in my mother’s family, that she had married a man completely without magic, from a family that lacked all evidence of magic.
But my father’s family was also called Lazarus, and my mother took that as a sign they were beshert, soulmates. Meant to be. And I for one was eternally grateful I had my father, so mild and genial and great-hearted, despite the fact I had lost him so young. My father’s memory, and the fact that he had extravagantly adored my mother, made her misery and waspishness easier for me to bear.
“The Witch of Budapest,” Bathory said again. “The most powerful witch in a generation.”
“But she practiced no magic.”
Bathory made an irritated little noise. “Magic isn’t what you practice, you obtuse girl. It is what you are.” He waved me away with another sigh. “Children today have no sense of possibility, of mystery. Everything is rational thought, science. You worship upon the altar of science, and sacrifice everything beautiful upon it.”
I was guilty as charged. I blushed even deeper, more deeply than I had in my life before, until my skin burned like under the August sun. “I miss her,” I said, abashed enough to abandon my pretense of sophistication, my illusory defenses.
“Of course. And you have come for my protection.”
“No,” I said, too sad now to take offense at his assumptions. “I have come to look for a job. You still owe my father for the transactions he undertook for you.”
I reached forward and took the paper out of his long, bony fingers, and he let me. I unfolded the paper again, read the words my mother had written in her ornate, spidery handwriting: “One case of Royal Tokaji wine. With Embellishments. Delivered in Secret to Count Gabor Bathory, Rose Hill, Budapest. Payment due upon delivery. NEVER PAID”
“What happened to the wine?” I asked, as I traced the words my mother left behind. I remembered our first meeting in Tokaj…the count’s melancholy air, his insistence on sitting inside on a beautiful summer’s day, with the curtains drawn. And I remembered the effect he had upon my mother.
Bathory sighed, and I tore my attention away from the paper, and my memories. “Oh, I drank it. It was marvelous, vampiric wine, very special. I ordered it from your father that day in Tokaj, after I had lost my ancestral lands, a way to salute the past before letting it go. And why I didn’t pay the bill, I don’t know. Grief, perhaps.”
I sighed and folded up the paper once again. Held it out to him. “Here you are, sir. I was indeed wrong. The debt is paid.”
“Now you are acting loopy, like a little chicken running in circles. Didn’t you just insist upon claiming your debt a moment ago?”
“But you paid it, sir. You called my mother the Witch of Budapest, gave her the honor she denied herself in life.”
I couldn’t help crying after that. My poor mother, who had given up everything after I was born. I had never wanted her to sacrifice her witchery, her dark and lovely magic, to the drudgery of diapers, and bottles, and prams. She had chosen it, but I would not have chosen obscurity for her.
“My goodness, you must have been a handful. Don’t you understand? Your mother was terribly powerful. She didn’t need to run around trying to prove it to anybody. She held that power in reserve, never had to use it.”
I choked back the tears, dashed them off my cheeks. I was done crying over my mother, who had denied her magic all the way unto the land of death. “I have a little sister, Lord Bathory. Who needs food, a roof over her head, a bit of peace and quiet if I can manage it for her. I need a way to make a living. But I seem to specialize in causing trouble. And that does not seem to be a skill that anybody wants to pay money for.”
“Look at me.” Bathory spoke low, his voice thrumming with power.
I looked at him. I didn’t blink, I didn’t fall into the depths of his gaze the way I had with Gaston. I was prepared this time, and I held onto myself and we looked at each other for a moment that seemed to stretch into infinity.
“By my fangs…” Bathory whispered.
I blinked in confusion. “I’m sorry,” I said. “If there is in fact anything you owe on the wine I would be grateful if you could pay me and my sister now. But you are right, I cannot enforce this debt. I would probably get thrown in jail if I tried.” Budapest was already too dangerous a place for Jewish girls, witches or no.
“You don’t even understand,” Bathory said, a little louder this time. He looked away, into the middle distance, and he rubbed his moustache with the tips of his fingers. “Little chicken, you are your mother’s daughter. She left you now to give you room. You say you have nowhere else to turn?”
My temper, always notably short, flared up. “I am not going to give you my neck, sir. I may be poor but I have my pride, and I will submit my will to nobody.”
He laughed again at that, and I only realized how coiled my body had been when I relaxed. “You miss the point. You are indeed made for trouble, designed for trouble. It does not take a gift of prophecy to foresee that the years ahead will be full of trouble, overflowing with trouble. It is 1936, Hitler has grown powerful and hungry, with a bloodlust for more. The great powers of the west think that they will make nicey-nice with that creature and keep him in his cage. They think the Communists will keep him occupied, facing east. They delude themselves.”
Bathory leaned back in his chair, considering the prospect of me. “I am in need of a mortal assistant, a loyal girl who can deliver messages, tell good deals from bad, get herself out of the trouble she causes. I think that you are the girl for me.”
He named a wage for my service, and I almost keeled over when I did the math on my fingers. What Bathory offered would cover the rent, cover food and fuel and pretty silk stockings for Gisele to boot.
Bathory offered me a way through the world. The fanged prince of darkness offered me life.
“This satisfies your debt to my family,” I said gravely, as we shook hands on the deal.
I didn’t know then that Bathory would incur additional debts to me, later.
That night I dreamed again. My mother didn’t summon me, not exactly, but she waited for me in the wintry wood where we had met before. She did not appear in answer to my grief and longing. This time, my mother was the one who had something to say.
“What are you doing? For goodness sakes, Magdalena, what do you think you are doing?”
A harsh wind slashed through the black branches. Far away, I heard the clanging of a church bell. A single glance told me the stars, so cold and distant, were not made for wishing in this place.
I drew myself up to my full height and answered with all the dignity I could muster. “I am providing for my little sister and making money.”
“You are not a vampire, child, and you have no protections against them. I forbid you from consorting with Bathory. Or any other vampire!”
My temper flashed like fire. “You don’t have the right to tell me what to do, not anymore! You could have stayed with us, but you chose to leave. So go on to the next world already! Gisi and I have to survive, one way or another. What else do you want me to do? Roll over and die – like you?”
We both gasped at what I had the audacity to say aloud. Something had changed in me as a result of my encounter with the vampire. For the first time, I was not only Tekla’s wayward daughter, but someone else. I wasn’t acting in opposition to my mother’s ways, as I had when I flitted about with poets and dreamers instead of staying home and learning the Lazarus creed of a Saturday night.
I went to Bathory with a mission – to take action to save my little sister, and myself too. And in my success I found my power. I wasn’t so quick to give all that up, not even for my mother, maybe especially not for my mother.
“You think you are taking your revenge on me,” she spluttered. “But I am only seeking to protect you. And Gisele too. You have no idea how dangerous Bathory is, how quickly he could destroy you.”
I thought of Bathory’s eyes, the infinite depths I had scryed into. How I had returned from the vampire’s gaze, unscathed. “Mama, he is dangerous. There is no doubt about that, zero. But we are alone. We have no money. What else am I supposed to do?”
My mother paced the moonlit clearing, pulling at her hair. The full moon, pitiless and cold, shone down from overhead. “How can I reach you?” she muttered under her breath, over and over. “You silly girl, how can I reach you?”
Nothing my mother had said before this had penetrated my sense of triumph, but now, seeing her fear and distress, a chill slid down my spine. The wind picked up among the trees, rustling the branches and sending a cascade of dead leaves kicking up around my feet.
“Let me try this,” she said in a louder, steadier voice. “Come here, Magduska.”
I took a dozen steps to join her, looked where she pointed.
Two doors stood sentinel in the wood, identical red wooden doors at a distance of about five meters apart.
“Those doors represent fear and love, Magduska,” my mother said. My heart twisted every time she used her pet name for me – she so rarely called me Magduska before she died.
“Remember what I say, for I will not come to you again in dreams. Always go through the door of love. Choose love, not fear. Is that not clear enough, child? When you wake up, remember the two red doors, and remember what I say.”
“Mama, I will remember, but…I will do what I have to do to take care of Gisele, through love or fear or the gates of Hell. I will go through whatever door I have to, to keep her safe.”
My mother laughed at my words, a shaky, despairing kind of laugh. “The vampire called me the Witch of Budapest. But I am in the world no longer. The mantle has passed to you. God help us all, it is you, not me. It is you.”
“No,” I said, a little too quickly. “I know nothing of spellcraft, nothing, I know nothing. All I know is that I refuse to let Gisele fall.”
“Whether you want it or not, the name is yours. The only inheritance I have to give you. Remember the two doors, Magduska. Watch over Gisele as you say. Farewell…”
“I kiss your hands, Mama. Goodbye. I love you…”
Even as I reached out for a final hug, she shimmered and faded away, leaving me bereft and subtly unsatisfied, once again.
A light snow began to fall, the red of the doors peeking through the cold, pure white of the fine flakes descending to earth. My heart, frozen, yet still beating. Holding out, at all cost, for the spring.
I contemplated the sight of the two doors, standing in the wilderness. One of the doors was love, my mother had said. The other was fear.
The doors looked identical, and she had left them unmarked. How could I ever tell the difference, when it came time to go through one door or another?
It would take the wisdom of angels come to earth to solve the mystery of the two doors, half-hidden by the gently falling snow. But I did not realize this until much later.