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The story takes place in Hungary, between two rival families: the Metzengersteins and the Berlifitzings. The bitter enmity between the two families is so old that no one knows how far back it dates. The narrator states that its origin appears to rely on an old prophecy: "A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing."
Young Frederick, Baron of Metzengerstein, inherits the family fortune at age 18 (though the age changes throughout its many re-publications[1]) and begins to exhibit particularly cruel behavior. "The behavior of the heir out-heroded Herod".[2] A few days after he receives his inheritance, the stables of the rival family Berlifitzing catch fire, killing the family's patriarch, William Von Berlifitzing. It is implied that Metzengerstein himself may have been responsible for this act of arson. That day, Metzengerstein sits staring at an old tapestry depicting a Metzengerstein who kills a Berlifitzing who lies at the feet of his horse. He thinks he sees the horse move and take on "an energetic and human expression." A few minutes later, he's told that a new, remarkable "fiery-colored" horse has been found in his stables with the letters "W.V.B." branded on its forehead, "I supposed them, of course, to be the initials of William Von Berlifitzing, but all at the castle are positive in denying any knowledge of the horse."
The horse displays "ferocious and demonlike" qualities. Only the baron is brave enough to try to break the mysterious horse. Day after day, Metzengerstein rides it as if addicted, and becomes less and less interested in the affairs of his house. During a nocturnal ride, the Metzengerstein castle catches fire. The runaway horse, against the horseman's orders, jumps into the flames with its rider, killing the last of the Metzengerstein clan. The horrified onlookers see a cloud of smoke settle above the castle in the shape of "the distinct colossal figure of — a horse."

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