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INFERNO: VOLUME 2 OF THE MORBUS DEI-TRILOGY Tyrol in 1704: Johann and Elisabeth flee from the eerie mountain village and beat their way to Vienna. Due to snow, icy cold and dangerous bandits their journey is a risky undertaking. When they finally reach their designation, their shared future seems to be within their grasp - until enemies from Johann's past emerge. To make matters worse, a mysterious disease is suddenly spreading and covers the city like a shroud. The old imperial city becomes a death trap from which there seems to be no escape ... An exciting journey through time: Matthias Bauer and Bastian Zach take you into a world shaped by death and darkness, but also by courage and hope. Surrounded by the gloomy backdrop of the wintry Alps you accompany Johann and Elisabeth on their dangerous journey. Experience the historical Vienna during the 18th century and the church's dark deeds. ********************************************************************************** THE MORBUS DEI-TRILOGY Vol. 1: Morbus Dei: The Arrival Vol. 2: Morbus Dei: Inferno Vol. 3: Morbus Dei: The Sign of Aries
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Morbus Dei: Inferno
Translated from the German language by Claire Speringer
Originally published in German language as Morbus Dei. Inferno
© 2012 by Haymon Verlag
Erlerstraße 10, A-6020 Innsbruck
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced and electronically processed, duplicated or distributed without the written approval of Haymon Verlag.
English translation: Claire Speringer
Graphical presentation of the cover: Bastian Zach
Cover picture: www.istockphoto.com, Bastian Zach
Author photo: Sabine Zach
Depending on the reading device used, varying depictions of the published texts are possible.
The time has come.
As I write these lines, a storm rages through the streets of Vienna, a storm of hate and destruction. Screams echo through the city, along with other more sinister cries.
The voices of THEM.
Soon they’ll be coming to get me. And perhaps that’s only as it should be since it was I, after all, who brought destruction on the city.
I can hear footsteps in the courtyard. I’ll hide the book and maybe he’ll find it. If he’s still alive, that is.
They’re here. Forgive me, oh Lord, and stand by us in our hour of darkness.
Vienna, Anno Domini 1704
Anno Domini 1707
The farmer fell to the ground face downwards and lay in the snow, breathing hard. He hadn’t seen the blow coming, hadn’t felt the tiniest hint it might. His assailant must be in league with the devil, if it wasn’t the devil himself who had come to get him. God knows, he’d deserve it alright.
His head hurt and everything was a muffled blur – the wind howling through the trees, the gate of the derelict farm banging open and shut, the ravens cawing up above …
Birds of death, thought the farmer.
Just keep flying round up there–might be worth your while.
Then he heard the crunch of footsteps coming slowly towards him. He daren’t move. He shut his eyes tight. The footsteps stopped close beside him. There was a heavy, expectant silence.
‘You always meet twice in a lifetime, isn’t that what they say?’
That voice. Calm, sure. He remembered it well, hoped he’d never have to hear it again.
‘Go on, turn over!’
The farmer heaved himself onto his back and felt the snowflakes flutter into his face. Slowly he opened his eyelids.
Looming over him were three blurred figures. A woman, an old man–and him.
Rather the devil himself, groaned the farmer to himself. He sat up gingerly and rubbed the back of his head. Then he looked at Johann through squinting eyelids. ‘What do you want?’
‘What money?’ The farmer felt furtively behind his back for the little iron bar that hung from his belt. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking–’
Again he was taken unawares, hadn’t seen the flick of a wrist, but there was a fierce pain now searing through his left leg. He screamed in agony and looked down at the knife sticking out of his thigh, sharp as a Turkish scimitar. The farmer recognized the knife with its decorated handle for he’d once held it in his own hand. He went to grab it but the other man was quicker. He yanked it out and held it to the farmer’s throat. ‘Your leg will heal but your throat won’t! Where’s my money?’
The farmer pressed his hand against the wound and the blood oozed from between his fingers and trickled into the snow. He was sobbing now and stammering something.
The young woman went up to Johann. ‘Is that really necessary?’
‘If you’d seen what I had, you’d be demanding his head, believe me. Go and fetch the things from the sledge, I’m almost finished.’
He lifted the farmer by the scruff of the neck and dragged him to the front door. A moment later both men had vanished into the darkness of the house.
The stench of the old place was overpowering–a mixture of musty air, rotting food and mildew.
Just like in the prison cells. Back then.
He made a face. ‘When’s the last time you let some fresh air into this place?’
‘What for? Keeps the plague out.’ The farmer limped faster, his face still contorted in pain, but Johann grabbed him again by the scruff of his neck.
‘Not so fast! Less speed more haste.’
He led Johann duly through the filthy hallway with its unfinished whitewashed walls and its heavy, black beams and low ceiling. The doors leading off of it were all shut and the windows were so small they looked more like shooting slits. The thick walls kept out every sound–too quiet, thought Johann and the stench and the dim light reminded him of a tomb.
One door stood open and as he went by he saw a little room with a made up bed in it.
‘Are you expecting guests?’
‘Yes, a French maid would be do nicely.’
Johann raised his knife.
The farmer shrugged his shoulders sullenly. ‘Every couple of winters a cleric comes here. Only stays for a night and then he’s off again–no idea where to. But he pays well so I don’t ask questions.’
‘So someone got away, did they?’ Johann smiled, glowering. ‘Other than me of course.’
The farmer looked at him, puzzled. ‘What do you mean–’
Johann gave him a violent shove in the back. ‘Just keep moving. Might stop you telling so many lies.’
The farmer turned into the smoke filled kitchen. The only light came from the flames of an open stove and the walls were caked with black soot and badly cracked. The smell in the room was abysmal. The floor was crusted over with mud and filth and there was rotting food and chicken feathers scattered everywhere.
The farmer limped over to the stove, took out a burning piece of tinder and lit the oil lamp. He noticed Johann’s look of disgust as he glanced round the kitchen.
‘What’s wrong now then? Used to something better, are you?’
‘That a swine like you lives in a sty like this doesn’t surprise me one bit. But you’re not a poor swine, are you?’ Johann stared at him pointedly.
‘I’ve got no money. Only yours, and that’s not been touched.’
The two men stood facing one another, the flames from the fire flickering across their faces.
‘You can hardly spend it in the middle of winter,’ said Johann with a cold grin.
‘It’s been a tough year, List. Honestly. I was finished, that’s the only reason I took your money. If I–,’ the farmer cleared his throat to make his voice sound stronger, ‘If I give it you back, then we’ll be quits, right?’
The farmer went into the pantry, put down the lamp and bent down over an iron ring that was inserted in the floor. The room was bare except for a couple of sacks of rotten potatoes and a few mouldy loaves of bread.
The farmer yanked on the ring. A trap door opened and there was a black hole with worn steps leading down into the darkness. Johann caught a whiff of dank, musty air.
‘After you,’ said the farmer.
Johann grabbed him and shoved him down the steps. The farmer fell and there was a crash and a loud scream–the man must have fallen onto his injured leg.
Good, thought Johann. He seized the oil lamp and climbed slowly down into the darkness.
The underground room was about the size of the little kitchen but, unlike the rest of the house, it was remarkably tidy. The well tamped floor was clean and the stone slabs on the walls looked as if they’d been polished. A large cross made of dark, shiny wood had been fixed to the wall between the stone slabs. It dominated the bare room, looming satanically.
The air was close and heavy and Johann could hardly breathe. The cross itself and the stone slabs surrounding it were spattered with drops of blood, glowing russet red in the glow of the oil lamp. He felt with his fingers across the uneven surface of the slabs, across the ruts that were almost like scratches …
Slowly Johann turned round to face the farmer. ‘Did you bring them down here before you murdered them then?’
‘Murdered? Who? What are talking about?’ The man’s nervous grin gave away the lie.
Johann felt a flash of anger.
The pit, the stench of decay …
His fingers tightened around the handle of his knife. Then slackened again. Eyes, staring at him between the dead leaves, fractured, pleading, dead …
With a quick, almost imperceptible motion, Johann grabbed the farmer by the throat and forced him up against the cross. ‘You’re joking aren’t you, asking such a question?’ he hissed. ‘I saw them, all of them, back there in the forest, in the pit!’
The farmer squirmed under his grasp. ‘But, I–’
‘Children even! My God, there’s nothing to stop me killing you right now!’
‘No, please! Please don’t kill me!’ gasped the farmer.
Johann squeezed the man’s throat more tightly. ‘I’ve killed more decent men than you. Why should I spare you?’
‘Have–mercy–’ gurgled the farmer.
Johann thought of the people who had suffered in agony there in the darkness. His fingers tightened around the farmer’s throat and the man stopped resisting.
Leave it. That’s enough.
The farmer’s body slackened.
Let others decide the sentence.
His inner voice was right of course, as it had so often been. Johann let the farmer go and he fell to the floor, coughing and spluttering and gasping for air. Johann bent down over him. ‘Listen carefully, you pathetic worm,’ he hissed. ‘Give me the money, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll decide not to nail you to this cross after all.’
Still struggling for breath, the farmer nodded and dragged himself heavily to his feet. He hobbled over to the wall and removed one of the stone slabs. Then he stuck his hand into the hole and pulled out a money pouch. Johann gestured for it and the farmer threw it to him.
He caught it and weighed it for a moment in his hand. ‘Seems to be all here.’
‘That’s what I said, wasn’t it? Are we agreed then?’ The farmer stood shifted from one foot to the other as she stood in front of the hole, rubbing his throat.
The farmer didn’t stir. Johann went up to him and shoved him aside. He looked into the hole and saw that it was full of money pouches, piled on top of one another. He picked up one of the bags, it was heavy and the coins jingled inside.
Johann hurled the bag to the floor in front of the farmer and it burst apart: dozens of coins scattered and rolled across the room, ringing out as they came to a stop.
‘So I’m not the only one you’ve filched then?’ cried Johann, glaring at the farmer. The man looked away.
The oil lamp flickered. There was a deathly silence and the men were suddenly still, like statues.
‘Get out of my sight!’ hissed Johann at last.
The farmer couldn’t believe it. ‘Are you letting me go?’
‘I won’t tell you again.’
‘Thank you, I’ stammered the farmer.
‘Don’t thank me too quickly, I haven’t finished with you yet.’
The young woman was unyoking the oxen when she heard a dog bark. She turned round and caught sight of the sheepdog racing from the woods towards her, panting madly.
The dog threw itself down in the snow in front of her and she tickled its head. ‘Vitus! Where’ve you been prowling?’
Suddenly the door of the farmhouse burst open with a bang.
Johann came out, dragging the farmer with him. Vitus set back his ears and began to growl and the woman tried to soothe him.
The farmer broke away and was about to run off when Johann grabbed him by the arm.
‘Not so fast, you cut-throat! You’re getting no food, and no blanket. Only the clothes you’re standing up in.’
The farmer nodded hastily.
‘Minus your shoes and stocks, just like your victims.’
‘But, but–that’s a death sentence’ stammered the farmer, ‘The next village is days away. I’ll freeze to death.’
‘That’s up to God to decide,’ said Johann. ‘Who knows, perhaps he’ll show you some mercy! You wouldn’t be the first sinner he’s let off the hook. Get moving!’
The farmer gave up remonstrating, took off his shoes and started to cry. Then he crawled forwards and grabbed hold of Johann’s leg.
‘I beg you, please. I’m just a man fighting for survival.’
Johann’s patience was at an end. He dragged the farmer to his feet and kicked him in the direction of the forest. The farmer fell to the ground, picked himself up and darted off barefoot into the snow as if he were treading hot coals. He disappeared quickly between the trees.
The woman turned to the old man who was standing beside the ox. Steam was coming off the animals back for it had been pulling the heavy sledge the whole day. The old man stroked its back and the ox snorted.
‘What do you say, Grandfather? That’s not right, is it?’ asked Elisabeth, at a loss.
The old man shrugged his shoulders. ‘Johann knows what he’s doing.’ It had stopped snowing and he brushed the snowflakes from his thick, worn coat. He looked up at the dusky sky and the wind-scattered clouds, and then back at the young woman. ‘It’ll soon be dark. Bring the things inside. I’ll take care of the ox.’ He pulled the ox with the sledge to the stable, and the dog followed him.
The woman picked up the bundle and went towards Johann. He put his arms around her without a word and then he showed her his money pouch.
‘That’ll have to be enough for the time being but there’s more in the cellar. Let’s stay here and wait till the worst of the cold weather is over. Then we can get going again. We’ll make it alright now we’ve got the money.’
The young woman gazed after the farmer’s footprints and the drops of blood dotted in the snow behind him. Then she looked at the farmhouse and the stable with its collapsed roof. There was something evil about the place, she could sense it. She gave a shudder. ‘I don’t suppose you have it in mind to tell me what this is all about.’
Johann looked at her but said nothing. She nodded. ‘Then at least promise me we won’t stay here longer than necessary.’
‘Promise. And now let’s go in before we freeze to death.’
Johann had finished eating and pushed his plate to one side. Elisabeth smiled.
‘Fearless as ever, Johann. The roux soup wasn’t much to write home about I’m afraid, but I couldn’t find anything else.’
After she had given the kitchen a good clean, Elisabeth had gone in search of food but the meat she’d found had already gone bad and the most of the vegetables were mouldy, so she’d had to make do with old potatoes and stale bread.
‘It was hot and thick and that’s good enough for me after days of roughing it. I’ve had more than my fill of cold, stringy meat and soup made of tree bark and roots,’ answered Johann.
‘Be grateful that we’ve made it at all,’ said the old man. ‘Really, we should all be dead. Like the rest of them.’
They were silent. The wind whistled through the cracks and crannies of the old house, the timber creaked and the kitchen fire flared and guttered.
The old man looked at Johann. ‘How long do you intend to stay here?’
‘Until the worst of the winter is over. We can’t get much further. If I were alone I might make it perhaps, but not with the three of us–,’ Johann scratched his neck, pondering. ‘I’ll go hunting in the next few days then we’ll have some fresh meat.’
‘Are you sure the farmer won’t come back?’
‘Quite sure,’ said Johann, grimly. ‘But I’ve closed the shutters and bolted the door just to be on the safe side.’
‘Good.’ The old man leant back in his chair, got out a curved tobacco pipe and slowly filled it. Then he picked up a piece of smouldering kindling and lit the pipe. A pleasant scent of tobacco and herbs filled the room.
The three of them were quiet. They hadn’t talked much during the journey, hadn’t dared mention what lay behind them, especially since the old man seemed so reluctant to talk about it.
It was Elisabeth who finally broke the silence. ‘I’ve got a room ready for you upstairs, Grandfather. There are enough blankets and there’s a pan with hot coals on the stove for the bed. The whole house is freezing cold.’
‘Thank you, dear child. Where are you–er, both of you–going to sleep?’ he said, pointedly.
‘There’s a room down here with two beds. There’s nowhere else really. We’ll have to arrange the room first and then light the stove,’ answered Elisabeth, blushing slightly.
‘I see, two beds …’ the old man couldn’t repress a smile. He knocked out his pipe on the edge of the stove and put it away. ‘Mind you–’ Johann and Elisabeth looked at him as he continued, ‘with weather as cold as this it does well to cuddle up to someone, warms you up quicker, making a virtue out of necessity, so to speak.’ The old man coughed slightly and gave a mischievous smile.
‘Goodnight then, children. And–Johann …’
‘Thank you for bringing us to safety. Thank you for everything.’ All at once tears welled up in his eyes.
Elisabeth flew towards him. ‘Grandfather –’
He made a deprecating gesture. ‘It’s okay, dear child. Memories, that’s all. They can’t be so easily left behind.’
‘It’ll get better, Grandfather, you’ll see.’
The old man nodded. He bent down under the table and stroked Vitus who was curled up fast asleep. Then he picked up the pan with the glowing coals, gave Elisabeth a kiss on her forehead and left the kitchen.
Johann went to Elisabeth and put his arms around her. She hugged him and he kissed her gently. ‘Everything’s going to be alright, Elisabeth. Real soon.’
‘I pray for that every day. And for the three of us.’
‘Do that. For I’m planning on sticking around.’ Johann grinned.
She gave him a playful smack and smiled archly.
‘Who knows, I might not keep you! You’re only a blacksmith after all.’ ‘Cheeky and headstrong! I’ll soon drive that out of you. Preferably right away.’ He looked into her eyes and she blushed.
‘I’ll just clear the things away.’
‘There’ll be time enough for that afterwards. Days and days, if you like.’
Elisabeth put up no resistance as he took her by the hand and led her out of the kitchen.
Johann and Elisabeth undressed quickly in the cold and slipped under the bedclothes of one of the narrow beds. Johann placed a candle in the candle holder on the wall and the flamed flickered in the draught and cast a soft light across the bare room.
They held each other. Elisabeth was nervous. They had only made love once and that had been wonderful, but what would it be like this time? Would Johann make love to her like that again, now that he had got what he wanted?
As if he could sense her apprehension, Johann rubbed his cheek against hers ever so tenderly and gently caressed her; he touched her breasts, kissed her navel, then her thighs. A warm glow suffused Elisabeth’s body and she moaned. Her fears seemed to melt away.
The old man gazed out of the lead glass window. Through the frostwork he could just make out the snow-covered forest and the mountains in the distance, looming icy blue and cold in the moonlight. The wind howled round the house and seemed to bring with it the sound of plaintive voices, crackling flames, and screams …
Elisabeth’s desire was a source of joy to Johann. She was different to the other women he had known, she was pure, intelligent and beautiful. He loved her, loved everything about her, her laugh, the curves of her body, her hair in the play of candlelight.
They moved together so naturally, so trustingly, as if they had always known each other.
The old man couldn’t but weep as he thought about the hand that fate had dealt him: the painful loss of his beloved wife, his tyrannical son who had robbed him of everything, and the terrible past that had caught up with the village and exacted its toll.
What kind of a life had the Lord chosen for him? And what would his final years be like? He didn’t really want to live any longer, if he had a choice, especially since Elisabeth now had man at her side who would go through hell and high water for her.
He stopped weeping. The old man cast his hand over his tear-stained eyes, then he looked at his palm thoughtfully and the almost indiscernible, black lines that criss-crossed it like a spider’s web.
The heat of the fire.
He felt as if a fire were blazing inside of him, had felt it for days.
And he knew why.
Elisabeth pressed Johann’s cheek to hers and held his body close. Nothing should separate them. She wanted them to be bound together in blissful union forever and to become one. For Elisabeth, their love-making that evening was even more beautiful than the first time.
Their limbs moved in unison, more quickly now, as they yielded to passion.
The old man tore his shirt from his chest.
The heat of the fire.
In the feeble light of the moon he could see the deep, black striae that had spread like rippling snakes across his chest.
Johann sank onto Elisabeth and she shut her eyes and held him tightly. She forgot everything around her, the past, and the future. She longed to capture the moment, hold on to it, and stop it from passing.
The candle flame flickered and went out.
The old man knew he was one of them. That’s why their voices, sinister and beguiling, came to him on the wind. Would he become like them too, like – his son? Heat. And wrath.
A wrath that had steadily grown in him in the past few days. How long would it be until it took him over? Until he did something to those he loved?
But it wouldn’t get that far. He’d make sure of that.
She was hurled violently against the wall. She reeled back, stunned. In the blur, she saw him,
his straggly hair hanging down over his eyes and his face a mass of black striae. His clothes were in rags and his hands covered with dried blood. He looked more like a demon from hell than a human being – and now he had come back to get her.
Slowly he came towards her.
She threw up her arms, she wouldn’t let him get her, she would–
Elisabeth woke up gasping for breath, the nightmare still before her eyes, slowly fading now. Then she heard the sound of gentle breathing beside her, and saw Johann asleep at her side.
It was dark in the room save for the narrow strip of moonlight that fell across the bed and the walls.
Calm down. It was only a bad dream.
It was not the first she’d had since their escape, but this one had been so vivid. She thought she could hear cries, and a fire spitting and crackling, and could smell blood, and then he was there, in front of her, coming at her–
Stop! It’s over, think of the future now.
Elisabeth shivered, it was bitterly cold in the room. Her throat was dry and she wanted to get a drink of water from the kitchen. She got up quietly so as not to wake Johann, threw a blanket over her shoulders and crept out of the room.
The hallway was dark. She could hear the wind lashing around the house and the shutters creaking.
As she felt her way towards the kitchen she suddenly heard a noise coming from upstairs. She stopped and listened.
A scratching, scraping noise. Must be vermin, she thought, and she tiptoed on. She knew that beams and walls had a life of their own, especially on blustery nights like this.
There it was again–the scratching.
Had an animal, or a person, found their way into the house? She thought of the farmer’s face, weasel-like and perfidious, as he disappeared into the woods. Had he returned to seek revenge?
The noise stopped.
Elisabeth waited a moment and then went on. She must be imagining things, probably brought on by the nightmare, no wonder –
There was a crash from upstairs, unmistakable now.
Elisabeth stopped again. There was no one but Grandfather up there. Her thoughts raced. Had something happened to him? He hadn’t looked well over the past few days, maybe he’d suddenly got a fever and collapsed? She imagined him lying on the cold floor, unable to call for help, waiting …
Elisabeth ran past the smoke kitchen and hurried up the stairs.
She could hardly see the old man in the dark but then she made out the contours of his body on the bed and heard his laboured breathing. Relieved, she closed the door behind her.
The corridor was dark. The doors were all closed except for one near the staircase, which stood slightly ajar. She was sure the door had been shut when she’d come up to prepare the room for Grandfather.
Perhaps the wind had blown it open.
She listened. It sounded like someone was throwing things around in the room.
Slowly, Elisabeth went towards the door. Her heart was pounding.
Gingerly, she pushed open the door and peeped inside.
There was a little window in the wall facing her and the moonlight streamed in, casting a pattern on the floor in the shape of a gigantic cross.
There was something inside the cross … Elisabeth peered more closely, petrified.
Suddenly a hand grabbed her shoulder from behind.
He stood facing her, his straggly hair falling into his face, a face rutted with black striae–
She screamed, and shrank back from him.
‘It’s me! Calm down!’
Her eyes cleared. ‘Johann?’ she stammered. ‘Why did you have to go and frighten me like that?’
He took her in his arms. ‘Sorry. I woke up and was worried about you.’
‘I heard a noise, and then–’
‘You shouldn’t go wandering around on your own in the house. Especially not at night.’
She let go of him. ‘What’s the matter with this place?’ Then she pointed to the floor, ‘And what is all this about?’
Johann saw then that the whole room was full of shoes, piles of them, of all different sizes; and there were knapsacks and coats, pipes and walking sticks and even some toys.
The victims’ belongings.
The sight appalled him. The items of clothing and the shoes seemed to blur before his eyes and all at once it seemed to him as if the corpses were lying on the floor in front of him, silent and accusing, in the shadow of the cross …
Then something moved from behind one of the piles.
Johann whipped out his knife and pushed Elisabeth behind him. He gestured to her to be quiet and then he circled slowly round the pile, his knife at the ready.
He had almost come full circle when–
Vitus suddenly poked his head out from between the shoes.
He must have crept up during the night and burrowed himself in the pile. Johann put away his knife.
‘Vitus, come!’ he commanded. The dog growled but got to his feet obediently. He whined and brushed himself against Johann’s legs. Then something dropped from his mouth. Elisabeth picked it up.
It was a child’s little boot, all spattered with blood.
Horror-stricken, Elisabeth let go of the boot and grabbed Johann’s arm. ‘What happened here? Tell me the truth, Johann!’
He thought for a moment. He couldn’t very well keep quiet any longer. ‘The farmer, who robbed me–’
‘Well, I wasn’t his only victim. He must have robbed lots of people over the years and–murdered them. There’s a pit in the woods full of corpses.’
Elisabeth starred at him in horror. ‘And you let that monster go?’
‘Let God or the devil be his executioner, not me. Anyway, he won’t get far. Not barefoot and with no food. I’ll give him two days in this snow and then he’ll have to answer for his deeds before God.’
Elisabeth considered for a moment and then she looked at him. ‘You were right not to kill him. But you had no right to hide the truth from me.’
Johann thought of the subterranean room and the scratches on the walls. ‘Forgive me.’
‘On one condition: that we leave first thing tomorrow morning.’ Elisabeth looked at the discarded clothes and the little boot. ‘There’s no way I’m staying here any longer.’
‘But we have to. The winter–’
‘We’ll manage. With the sledge and the money we’ve got.’ She pressed her lips together, resolute.
Johann saw there was no point in arguing about it. And perhaps she was right–he wasn’t superstitious but he too could sense the sinisterness of the place. The house reeked of evil.
‘Alright. We’ll leave tomorrow morning.’
The morning greeted them with a crystal clear sky, and the snow-covered planes shimmered opalescent in the sun.
They loaded their supplies onto the sledge and Johann hitched up the ox. Elisabeth helped Grandfather onto the sledge and covered herself and the old man with a blanket.
Johann sat in front. ‘Have we got everything?’
‘Yes. There’s not much anyway,’ murmured the old man wearily. Elisabeth looked at him with concern.
Johann flicked the reins, the ox trotted off and they left the farm behind.
To Johann’s surprise they were making good progress. They were driving alongside a brook that was frozen over with ice. There’d been little fresh snow overnight so there was a hard, solid surface beneath the sledge which made the going easier. Johann tried to orient himself by the sun and the moss on the trees for the paths were indiscernible.
Gradually the trees became denser and the ox trotted more slowly. They stopped to rest for a few moments, struggling against the icy wind that lashed down on them from the mountains, freezing them to the bone.
Then the wind let up and there was a hushed silence over the lonely landscape that seemed so bereft of life under the pallid, empty sky.
The hours passed and they scarcely spoke. They were numb, hedged in by the cold. Vitus trotted slowly, sniffing desultorily at the passing trees and the frozen undergrowth.
Johann pulled the reins and the ox came to a halt.
Elisabeth stopped dozing and looked up. It was already dusk and the sun’s last rays were lingering on a large field of snow and the trees surrounding it.
‘Why’ve we stopped?’ asked Elisabeth.
Johann jumped down from the sledge. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He hurried off into the field. Vitus let out a whine and crouched down in the snow.
The old man bent towards Elisabeth. ‘Can you make out what that is over there in the field?’ She shook her head. All she could see was Johann walking resolutely towards a dark point, his hand casually resting on his right hip.
Where his knife was strapped.
The situation reminded Johann of something that had happened not long ago. He and Albin had gone searching for a missing cow and–Albin.
Johann pressed his lips together, remembering what they had done to Albin in the forest, before the soldiers and the villagers had come.
And what they had done to the village and its inhabitants.
Concentrate on the here and now.
His inner voice. Unswerving, truthful. He obeyed it, as he had done so often, and walked briskly towards the crumpled heap in the snow.
Then he recognized what it was and looked away, gazing up at the dark forest and the mountains. He swallowed. Then he looked again.
In a pool of frozen blood, lay a man, or rather, what remained of him. Bits of flesh and tattered clothing were hanging from his bones. His face had been bitten and was twisted in pain. A mutilated arm lay outstretched in the snow, in a final, blind gesture of supplication.
Johann drew a deep breath and bent down over the dead body. He hesitated, then he smiled grimly to himself. The man was barefoot. God had passed his judgement then.
Suddenly he noticed tracks in the snow around the body, and he blanched.
He turned round hastily. The reddish light from the setting sun blinded him for a moment.
He saw the sledge, and Elisabeth and her grandfather.
Then he caught sight of the pack of wolves coming towards them.
He let out a loud shout and started running.
Elisabeth couldn’t understand why Johann, who had looked calm a few moments ago, was now racing towards them across the field, shouting and gesticulating wildly.
Suddenly she heard Vitus growl. She turned round–and stared in horror.
The pack of wolves was only a few feet away, and the pack leader, a huge, grey beast, was set to spring at her. Elisabeth let out a scream, then she was swung round and pushed to the floor of the sledge.
‘Stay down!’ shouted Grandfather, crouching over her. Seconds later the wolf sprang and the old man was wrenched from the sledge like a rag doll.
Elisabeth clambered to her feet in panic. Her grandfather lay beside the sledge, jerking violently, the wolf at his throat. ‘Run!’ croaked the old man, his voice breaking into gurgles.
Then another wolf raced towards her, slobber coming from its mouth, and she saw it leap. Instinctively, her arm shot into the air. She heard barking and Vitus sprang at it and the two animals rolled from side to side, tearing at each other and snarling fiendishly.
The wolf was soon bleeding and limping on one foot. Vitus drew himself up in front of it, the hair on his neck bristling and his teeth bared. But just then another two wolves shot out of nowhere and dragged him to the ground, and he vanished under them, howling pitiably.
Then the howling stopped.
Elisabeth stood there, paralysed with shock. Now the wolves turned on the ox. It snorted ferociously and reared up, tipping over the sledge. Elisabeth was flung to the ground, and lay there, stunned and terrified. She could hear the roars of the ox in her ears as the wolves gored it to death.
Then someone grabbed a couple of the wolves and wrenched them up into the air. ‘Get out of here!’ shouted Johann, dragging them with him.
Elisabeth heard their snarling but still couldn’t move. Johann hung on tightly to the beasts and hurled them clear of the sledge.
Elisabeth tried to get up but stumbled and fell back down into the snow. The wolves turned from the ox and bolted towards her, the pack leader in front with his snout all bloody and his mad yellow eyes.
Johann was there already, in front of Elisabeth, his knife in his hand.
The wolves were closing in fast. His heart was pounding. Glancing down at Elisabeth, he managed a smile. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too, Johann.’ She squeezed his hand weakly.
Then time seemed to stand still for Elisabeth. She saw the wolves–
Forgive us our sins, oh Lord.
–the pack leader–
And receive us graciously, oh Lord.
–and Johann with his knife clutched firmly in his hand–
Thank you for the brief moments I have had with this man.
–and closed her eyes.
The shot was ear-splitting.
Elisabeth opened her eyes and saw the pack leader lying dead in the snow, blood steaming and trickling over its fur. The other wolves double backed and raced off howling into the forest.
Johann pointed behind her. ‘The man up there obviously has plans for us.’
Two men came plodding towards them across the snow. One of them was carrying a smoking muzzleloader.
The man with the muzzleloader stopped in front of them. He was tall, taller than Johann, and his grey eyes were sharp and penetrating. His companion stopped a short distance away, his head bowed. Both of them were wearing leather capes and wide-brimmed hats.
‘Always best to keep to the forest edge when crossing open country.’ The tall man gave Johann a stern look.
‘Yes, of course. I know,’ said Johann, wiping the sweat from his brow, somewhat embarrassed.
Have you forgotten everything you learnt?
‘I’m grateful to you,’ he continued, ‘for rescuing us–brother.’
The man said nothing. He took off his hat, revealing his tonsure. His eyes fell on the sledge. ‘Are you travelling alone?’
Elisabeth reddened. ‘Oh! Grandfather!’ She jumped up and ran back to the sledge.
‘Wait!’ Johann was about to run after her but the monk held him back.
‘Hold on a minute, my son. You haven’t answered my question.’
Trembling, Elisabeth kneeled over her grandfather’s motionless body. She felt unspeakable pain and sadness and she blamed herself for being too late again.
Suddenly the old man pulled himself up. He stretched out a blood-smeared hand and clawed at her throat, digging his nails deep into her flesh. Elisabeth let out a shriek.
‘Jakob!’ he snarled, struggling for breath and his voice breaking into gurgles. ‘I’ll –‘
Elisabeth tried to pull away from him. ‘Grandfather, no, please, it’s me –‘
Then he recognized her. He let go, and his cruel, hate-filled face softened. ‘Dear child, it’s you …’ All at once his body stiffened and he collapsed into himself, his eyes gone, staring fixedly.
Elisabeth’s clutched her throat and started weeping. There were footsteps, and she felt Johann’s hand gently pulling her to her feet. She threw her arms around him, letting the sobs come whilst he held her tight and was silent.
It was getting dark now. The monk motioned to his companion who went off to collect brushwood in the forest. Then the monk bent down and closed the dead man’s eyes.
‘May his soul rest in peace.’
Laying his muzzleloader on the sledge, he opened his knapsack and took out a little phial. He dabbed some of the colourless liquid on his finger and made the sign of the cross on the old man’s brow. The he kneeled beside the body, his lips moving in silent prayer.
Elisabeth stopped crying. Her throat was throbbing now and she felt a boiling heat but she paid no heed. Clasping her hands together, she turned to the monk. ‘Thank you, Father, for accompanying him home.’
The monk looked at her and a smile flitted across his face.
The other man came back with the brushwood, threw it down under a big tree and began to make a fire with deft little movements. It didn’t take long before it was alight. He lit a torch and walked back with it towards the sledge.
His prayer finished, the monk was straightening up when he stumbled. Bending down over the body again, he caught sight of something on the man’s chest, beneath his torn clothing. He pushed the jacket and part of the shirt to one side.
Johann and Elisabeth stared in horror at the black striae covering the old man’s chest.
‘Oh no!’ exclaimed Elisabeth in a whisper, her hand flying to the wound in her throat. ‘Oh God, he-‘
‘I think you’d better tell me who you are,’ said the monk coldly, reaching for his gun and aiming it Johann and Elisabeth. They looked at him.
‘I beg you, Brother,’ said Johann, placatory. ‘We’re not your enemies.’
‘I won’t ask you again.’
‘Nice muzzleloader you’ve got there,’ he said. ‘Unusual for a man of God, though I’ve seen stranger things. But I don’t recall your having reloaded it.’
The monk thought for a moment, then he lowered his gun. ‘Very well.’ He put the gun back on the sledge. ‘Let’s be open with one another. I’m Konstantin von Freising from the Order of the Society of Jesus. And this,’ he pointed to his companion who was standing deferentially to one side, ‘is Basilius, my novice. He’s taken a vow of silence so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t speak.’
‘I’m Johann, and this is Elisabeth Karrer. We come from–’
‘I know where you come from,’ said von Freising. He pointed to the dead man’s chest. ‘It’s not the first time I’ve seen that. You’d better tell me what happened up there.’
Elisabeth stared at the Jesuit, flabbergasted. How could anyone outside the village know about them?
Von Freising nodded, as if he’d read her thoughts. ‘That’s right–I know about the so-called outcasts.’ He saw her turn white and noticed her hands were trembling. ‘Let’s sit down by the fire and have something to eat. Then you can tell me what happened.’
Johann had finished speaking. The monk was staring at the ground. ‘All dead, the whole village … that’s not what we wanted.’
‘We?’ asked Johann.
Von Freising didn’t answer.
‘They weren’t to blame,’ said Elisabeth turning to the monk. ‘They only wanted to live in peace and have enough to eat. It was the villagers who drove them to it, especially my father.’ She swallowed. ‘It was always my father,’ she added bitterly. ‘Sometimes it seemed to me that the devil himself had taken possession of him.’
Elisabeth laid her head wearily in Johann’s lap. The throbbing in her throat was getting worse but she drew up her collar, adjusted her hair and said nothing.
‘Don’t fret, Elisabeth,’ said Johann. ‘You don’t need a devil to make evil things happen.’
‘What about you?’ said von Freising with a raised eyebrow. ‘You’ve told a good tale but left yourself out. You’re not from the village, obviously–where are you from?’
‘As I said, I’m a blacksmith and–’
‘You’ve done a lot of fighting for a blacksmith–and you did remarkably well up there in the mountains, better than a whole troop of soldiers put together!’
‘You learn a lot on the road.’
‘But not how to lie, it seems,’ said the monk, with a shrewd look.
‘I’m not lying. I just missed out a few things perhaps,’ he replied. ‘Same as you. Perhaps you’ll tell us what you’re doing here and how you came to know about the outcasts and the village?’
Von Freising hesitated a moment. ‘The village priest, Kajetan Bichter, was in contact with us. With my order, I mean. It was part of my job as a visitator to pay a call on the cloister every five years and see how they were.’ He glanced at Basilius who was sitting by the fire, very still. ‘I can’t tell you any more than that. And that’s all you need to know.’
‘By the way, did you stay at a farm on your way up here? About a day’s journey away?’ asked Johann.
The monk nodded. ‘The man’s a cut-throat, but his place is the only shelter for miles around.’
‘Not any more. He’s lying over there in the field; the wolves took a fancy to him.’
Von Freising turned round but it was too dark to see. ‘What was he doing so far from home?’
‘He was a killer. It seems God was just for once.’
‘Do not speak ill of the Lord!’ scolded the monk.
‘Oh, He can take it alright,’ said Johann, drinking some water. ‘What are you thinking of doing now?’
‘After what you’ve told me, I’ll have to go back to Vienna to file a report. And you?’
Johann glanced down at Elisabeth who had fallen into a restless sleep. ‘We just want to get out of Tyrol.’
Von Freising laughed. ‘You must be joking. Don’t you know what’s been what’s been happening lately?’
Johann said nothing. Von Freising threw a branch into the fire. ‘At the end of the day,’ he continued, ‘people are basically predators, tearing each other to pieces. The Bavarian soldiers might be gone from Tyrol but there are plenty of other battles on the horizon. In the south, the imperial regiment is still fighting the French, and in the north Marlborough and Prince Eugene are preparing to attack the Bavarians and their allies. And of course the Swiss have closed the borders.’
Elisabeth moaned in her sleep, as if she were in pain. Johann stroked her forehead. ‘We’ll find a way,’ he said softly.
‘I’ve got a proposal to make.’ Von Freising bent closer towards him. ‘The abbot of our monastery in Innsbruck and I are on good terms. If you like, you could come and stay there–at least until the borders are open again.’
Johann stared at the monk. ‘You’re very kind. May I ask why?’
Von Freising shrugged his shoulders. ‘Like you, I’ve been around a lot. I think I know humankind well enough to be able to judge who deserves some help.’
‘Then I’m grateful to you. We’d be glad to accept your offer.’
‘Good man!’ said von Freising with satisfaction. ‘Now let’s get some sleep. We have to break camp early in the morning.’
Johann nodded. ‘I’ll keep first watch.’
Von Freising wrapped himself in a coarse blanket and lay down with his gun beside him. Basilius lay down beside the fire.
Johann studied them thoughtfully. Von Freising wasn’t the only one who could spot a lie–the monk was up to something for sure. But whatever it was, it didn’t matter for the time being– they’d be safer travelling as a group of four at any rate, and would stand a better chance of getting to the valley. Once they’d got there, he and Elisabeth would get clear of them. A cloister in Innsbruck was the last thing he needed.
Clouds drifted across the sky, blotting out the moon. The fire crackled and he could hear wolves howling in the distance. Elisabeth’s breathing was fitful but as soon as he pulled up the blanket and took her hand, it steadied again.
He felt grief now as he thought of the old man who was no longer with them. It was Grandfather who had taken him in the first place, and looked after him–a debt he would now be unable to repay.
May his soul rest in peace.
Elisabeth coughed and murmured something in her sleep and Johann gently squeezed her hand.
We’ll make it, Elisabeth. I promised you we would and I shall keep my promise.
At any cost.
‘O Lord, receive this soul …’
Two hastily piled stone heaps lay beside one another like comrades in the snow. Elisabeth thought it only fair that Vitus, who had shared the old man’s life for more than two decades, should lie beside his master now in death.
The stones would keep off the scavengers and the makeshift wooden crosses would at least give them the semblance of graves. The ground was too frozen to bury the bodies.
It was still early but the sky was already cloudless and not as cold as it had been lately. A curious warm wind was blowing and Johann gazed uneasily at the treacherous snowy mountain slopes ranging up on all sides. He was familiar with the Foehn wind that sometimes blew down from the mountains, loosening the snow packs. They would have to hurry if they wanted to get to the valley in one piece.
‘… Amen,’ said von Freising, concluding the short service. He turned to Johann and Elisabeth. ‘Would you like to say a few words?’
Elisabeth nodded. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep it short. I know we’ve got to hurry.’ She cleared her throat and drew a deep, full breath. ‘Thank you, Grandfather, for protecting me all my life as much as you could.’ Her voice trembled slightly. ‘You were like a father to me and I pray to God that you have now found peace, and are in heaven, waiting for me with Vitus at your side.’
She hesitated, feeling a sharp pain in her throat that seemed to constrict her voice box. ‘And I know that you never once acted with deliberate malice. Amen.’
Johann was a little perplexed by her last sentence. She looked at him as she wiped away her tears. ‘I’m ready.’
Von Freising made a concluding sign of the cross, then they picked up their knapsacks and bundles and set off.
As they walked away, Elisabeth turned one more time. How forlorn the stone graves looked, all alone, in the great expanse of snow! Swallowing the lump in her throat, she looked ahead again and quickened her pace.
‘Less is more where words are concerned, I always think.’ Von Freising was walking alongside Elisabeth. His walking staff was almost as tall as a man, and his muzzleloader was slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. Johann walked ahead, searching out the route, and Basilius was bringing up the rear.
‘Thank you, Father. It came from the heart.’
‘Of that I am sure.’ The monk smiled. Then he looked towards Johann, who was some distance ahead of them. ‘Do you trust that man?’ he asked gravely.
‘More than any other,’ replied Elisabeth. ‘He tried to protect me. He saved my life and he stuck by us all.’ She paused for a moment. ‘I love him. He’s as dear to me as life itself.’
‘Love …’ mused the monk. ‘Love passes, except for the love of God, that is.’
‘If you’d read what he wrote to me you would not doubt, Father.’
They were silent for a moment.
‘You can read?’ asked von Freising with some surprise.
She nodded proudly. ‘Johann taught me.’
The monk glanced at Johann and raised an eyebrow. ‘A man of many talents, it seems.’
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