A PERFECT FINALE TO THE MORBUS DEI-TRILOGY Austria, 1704: The young woman Elisabeth is trapped in the hands of the French general Gamelin who pursues dark plans - plans that not only endanger her, but also the whole Habsburg Empire. Only one man can avert the calamity: Johann List, who loves Elisabeth and would rather die than giving her up. A fatal chase takes its course and leads through inhospitable valleys and secret abbeys of the old empire to the mighty fortress of Turin - and on into the deep heart of the Alps. ********************************************************************************** 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: The Sign of Aries
Translated from the German language by Claire Speringer
Originally published in German language as Morbus Dei: Im Zeichen des Aries
© 2013 by Haymon Verlag
Erlerstraße 10, A-6020 Innsbruck
E-Mail: [email protected]
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
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.
… one part angelica, two parts rue, one part dried toad powder, four parts honey and two parts aniseed.
Grind the ingredients and mix them carefully to form a glutinous paste. Let the paste stand for three days and three nights until it is dry.
The old abbot laid the quill to one side and blew on the ink to dry it. He gazed with satisfaction at the transcript he had made of the pages when suddenly there was a creak.
He froze. Nothing. It must have been the woodwork breathing, he thought with a chuckle.
A couple of logs were gently smouldering in the fireplace and the one solitary candle in the otherwise dark library began to splutter. In the flickering light, the abbot scrutinized what he had written and carefully compared it a final time with the original, for he knew that the omission of one single ingredient could have dire consequences.
However everything was as it should be. He let out a deep sigh and all at once the feeling of tension that had dogged him for the past few days melted away.
He stroked his stubbly, snow-white beard. Wasn’t it only yesterday that it had been dark brown? Or was that decades ago? He looked down at his bony hands, all sprinkled with liver spots.
The abbot folded the transcript and placed it in a little leather bag hanging from his belt.
There was a bang and the heavy wooden door flew open and three men wearing the robes of the Dominican Order burst into the library. They glared at the abbot.
‘You’ve had long enough to look for them,’ piped up one of the men.
‘Yes, and now I’ve found them,’ replied the abbot, his heart pounding with trepidation as he reached towards the loose papers on the table. He gathered them up and handed them to the men.
One of them snatched the papers and flicked through them.
‘Well? Are they them?’ asked one of the friars behind him.
The Dominican nodded. Then he went briskly towards the fireplace and threw them into the fire. The flames licked at the pages, their edges curling in the heat, and in a short while they were nothing but ash.
A draught caught the tiny white fragments, making them dance and swirl in the air until they finally vanished up the chimney.
Gone forever, thought the old abbot, that’s what would have happened.
Without another word, the Dominicans departed. The abbot watched them disappear down the dark corridor. Thoughtfully, he stroked his leather bag.
No doubt they thought they had acted for the good of mankind in general, and for the good of the church in particular.
Which is what I too have done.
There was the sound of hurried footsteps and he looked up. A novice came running along the corridor and stopped in the doorway, tears in his eyes.
‘Brother Martin’s life is coming to an end,’ he panted. ‘Please come, he’s asking for you, Abbot Bernardin!’
Anno Domini 1704
The thunderstorm, which had rained down on Vienna as if it were bent on drowning the old imperial city, had blown over before sunrise, leaving a cloudless sky. There was a mild, early summer breeze blowing and the sun shone down, drying up the mud and the puddles.
Lunch over, the farmers were back at work and hardly noticed the thin plume of smoke spiralling into the sky above the hilltops in the north.
Yesterday there had been a real spectacle. The entire imperial city had gone up in flames, at least that was what some people had believed. The prospect had made them rub their hands together with no small amount of glee: at last the stinking rich city folk would find out what it was like to lose everything, something they had had the misfortune to experience at the hands of the Turks during the last siege.
However, towards evening, the glow of the distant fire began to die down and it was clear that the city and its inhabitants had survived.
So the farmers went back to the grindstone and paid no attention to the convoy of waggons bumping along the highway, escorted by a dozen men on horseback. Variously armed, with grim expressions and no uniforms, it was obvious to all that they were mercenaries.
At the head of the convoy was a black carriage, its curtains tightly pulled, and behind it two heavy box waggons with wide, ironclad wheels and covered with leather tarpaulin. A provisions waggon was bringing up the rear. Escorts were riding in front and behind the expedition, their eyes peeled for obstacles or troublemakers.
François Antoine Gamelin, Special Envoy and Maréchal de camp of the French army, had always disliked the rhythmic swaying of a carriage, for, in his opinion, it lulled the occupants into an illusory world of unreality. He hated to travel like an effete nobleman and would much rather have had a hard saddle under him and the wind in his face, something which his current position did not allow. He peered through the gap between the curtains at the luscious green meadows and was annoyed with himself for feeling annoyed. He had no reason to be out of sorts for he had brought off a coup that very morning that would win him the admiration of all the generals: he was carrying in the two waggons behind him precious military fodder that would prove decisive for the war. Fodder that he had secretly smuggled out of Vienna.
Twirling his moustache complacently, he turned away from the window. In front of him was a piece of that fodder in the shape of a young woman. She was pressed up against the sumptuous upholstery, with her eyes lowered. Her dress was worn to threads, and her dark hair hung down in strands over her pale, freckled face. On her left cheek was a flame-red mark, just beginning to turn bluish.
Gamelin had managed to capture her at the very last moment. She was the key to everything that had happened in Vienna, the spark that had kindled a veritable conflagration. Gamelin saw himself as the custodian of that spark. He had even managed to prise out of her the location of the village where it had all started. This information was his safeguard, should anything happen to his precious cargo and he be in need of replacements.
Now that she had told him what he had wanted to know he had no further use for her.
He waved his hand casually out of the window and the carriage came to a standstill. Two mercenaries came running up and opened the door. ‘I bid you farewell and thank you, ma chère Elisabeth,’ said Gamelin, nodding to the soldiers. They grabbed the young woman and dragged her out of the carriage.
She offered no resistance and, submitting to the men’s rough treatment of her, stumbled along the muddy road to the rear of the next waggon behind the carriage. She still couldn’t think straight, couldn’t make head or tail of what had happened, to her and to all of them.
The soldiers shoved aside the tarpaulin, opened the heavy door with its iron bars and waited for Elisabeth to climb into the cage.
There were dozens of people huddled together inside, all shielding their eyes from the glare of the daylight. A moment later the door was bolted shut and the tarpaulin pulled firmly across.
It took a while for Elisabeth’s eyes to get used to the darkness. Gradually she was able to make out the human spectres that were crowded into the cage.
With a sudden jerk the convoy set off again and the pale bodies with their patchwork of black veins were thrown against each other.
Help me, Johann!
The Danube was calm and smooth and glinting gold in the midday sun. There no ships to be seen, only one single barge, heavily laden, making its way towards the east.
Its owner, Count von Binden, looked anxiously at the man lying unconscious amidships in the makeshift cabin. Heinz Wilhelm Kramer, the ‘Prussian’, as his friends liked to call him, had been seriously injured a few hours previously by a musket bullet.
The thick bandage round his thigh was saturated with blood but no one dared change it for fear of releasing the pressure on the wound.
Passing his hand over his face, Johann looked at his injured comrade and tried to organise his thoughts.
‘We’ll be in Preßburg in a few hours,’ said von Binden.
‘That might be too late, he’s losing too much blood. We’ve got to get him to a barber surgeon as quickly as possible,’ said Johann.
Von Binden sighed. ‘Alright, let’s risk it then. Deutsch-Altenburg isn’t far away. I would be happier if Vienna were further behind us but you’re probably right. And I know someone there who could help us,’ said the Count. He left the cabin and went up to his helmsman on the stern.
Johann took a deep breath and gazed about him. Markus Fischart, a bear of a man with the ingenuous expression of a child, was squatting opposite him quietly chewing a piece of bacon rind, something he’d been doing ever since they’d come on board.
Hans and Karl were sitting a little to one side, staring mutely at the river. They had scarcely said a word since they had rescued the Prussian and themselves, leaving everything behind them, including their jobs as Central Patrol guards.
Victoria Annabelle, the Count’s young daughter, was huddled asleep between two crates, in blissful ignorance, thought Johann, of the significance of what had happened. He looked away from the slumbering child towards the river and the sunshine cascading onto the water. He blinked and closed his eyes.
He thought of her angelic face and the way she had looked the first time he had seen her, when he had been in bed with a fever and she had nursed him back to health again. He thought of her laughter in their brief moments of happiness, the way she had made love to him with such abandon, and her determination, after he and the Prussian had long since given up.
Then he saw her in front of him again, being dragged away by soldiers on the shore a few moments ago, or was it already hours? He felt again the same feeling of powerlessness he had felt then, and blind rage–if he could, he would jump off the barge right now, swim back through the Danube and take on the whole of Vienna single-handedly just to hold her in his arms again.
Johann took a deep breath and sat down beside the Prussian. He took hold of his friend’s arm and closed his eyes.
How had they got to this sorry state of affairs? How had it all begun? Perhaps their conspiracy against the officers on the front had started it all. But they had had no choice, the officers had planned to destroy an entire region and wipe out its population and they couldn’t just sit back and let that happen. Everything would have turned out well enough, had not one of the officers escaped.
Von Pranckh …
Then came the hunt for the mutineers, his separation from his comrades, his escape and capture by the French, followed by weeks of torture at the hands of Lieutenant General François Antoine Gamelin.
Then he had escaped again and had finally found his way to a lonely valley in the Tyrolean mountains, where, wounded and weakened to the extreme, he had been closer to death than ever before. He could remember the lights in the snow storm, the village, and how he’d struggled to reach it, his strength nearly gone, until he collapsed at last on the doorstep of a farmhouse. As the snow had slowly covered him over, death had seemed to him a saviour, a helmsman bringing him to safe harbour.
But then Elisabeth had appeared. And she had nursed him back to health and given his life meaning again.
Pictures flashed through his mind.
The tyranny of Elisabeth’s father.
His own burgeoning love for her …
Pentagrams painted on the houses–as protection against the dark forests and its inhabitants.
The abbey ruins in the light of the moon.
Figures in cassocks, deathly pale faces with black, throbbing veins and jagged teeth.
Elisabeth’s grandfather, who had revealed to them the terrible secret of the village.
The invasion of the village by Bavarian soldiers and the insane penal expedition against the outcasts.
Albin’s dead body hanging frozen between the trees in the overgrown forest.
The images came faster now like the pages of a book being flipped over by a gathering wind.
The village in flames–Grandfather’s death–Leoben where they’d got their forged papers–Vienna and his reunion with the Prussian.
And then the darkness.
The disease of the outcasts spreading through Vienna–the horrors of the quarantine district–their desperate escape, von Pranckh’s death and–
In the past few days they had risked everything and almost lost it all.
Had it been worth all of that?
He thought of Josefa, the Prussian’s wife, who had died in her husband’s arms. He would never forget the expression in his friend’s eyes as Josefa’s body lay suddenly lifeless on the bench beside him.
Had it been worth all of that?
Elisabeth had been captured and, according to Karl, had been dragged towards a black carriage. All at once Johann felt an indescribable emptiness, as though the ground had been pulled out from under his feet and he were about to plummet into nothingness.
Had it been worth all of that?
And at the same time, yes!
The windows and doors of the magnificent salon of the town hall were all tightly shut in spite of the warm, early summer weather. Jakob Daniel Tepser, Mayor of Vienna, ran his hand through his dishevelled hair. The representatives of the city council and high clergy, who were sitting with him round the oak table, looked away in silence. It was a black day for all.
The mayor took a deep breath. ‘Have I understood you correctly, Lieutenant Kampmann? Not only was the wanted deserter, Johann List, responsible for the slaughter of Pater Bernardus Wehrden of the Dominicans and his nuncio and our esteemed Jesuit Superior, Pater Albert Virgil, but he also set fire to the quarantine district while it was being evacuated, is that correct? And now I hear he has the blood of Special Envoy Ferdinand Philipp von Pranckh on his hands too?!’
Kampmann nodded sheepishly. He had taken over command of the City Guard following the mysterious death of Lieutenant Schickardt, who was found shot dead in a little graveyard outside the gates of Vienna.
‘And to cap it all, he seems to have outwitted your men and escaped on some damned Protestant’s skiff–is that what you’re telling me?’
The Lieutenant looked at the Mayor in silence. Tepser, who turned bright red in the face, banged his palm down on the table. ‘I should have you demoted to a damned bootblack on grounds of incompetency!’
‘With due respect,’ retorted Kampmann in a low voice, ‘we have successfully carried out all the tasks assigned to the City Guard. The district has been cleared and the sick disposed of. By the time we’d got wind of the deserter’s escape, it was already too late. Not even the Lord God himself could have …’
‘One more word out of you, Lieutenant, and I swear …’ said the Mayor with an angry snort, glancing round the table.
The captain of the Central Patrol was managing to look as if none of this was any concern of his, which incensed Tepser all the more. He would give him a good talking to afterwards. There were reports that three Central Patrol men had not only aided and abetted the deserter’s escape but had also vanished with him.
Bishop Harrach motioned for calm. ‘What’s happened, has happened, gentlemen. We need to concentrate all our efforts now on helping our citizens return to the tranquil, pious lives, which were their salvation before the terrible escalation of events.’
‘Yes, exactly, before the escalation of events,’ added Tepser, combing his hair backwards with his fingers. ‘I shall travel today to the spring residence in Laxenburg in order to personally inform his Majesty, our Kaiser, of the regrettable course of events. In view of Vienna’s prime importance to the realm, I am confident his Majesty will share our opinion that it would be best to omit the occurrences of the past days and weeks from our chronicle so that they are blotted out.’
Tepser gazed solemnly at all those present and they nodded in agreement.
‘So be it. A state funeral will be held for von Pranckh with full military honours et cetera. And let’s get it over and done with as quickly as possible so that we can put that behind us too!’
Lieutenant Kampmann nodded as well.
The Mayor got to his feet. ‘So, gentlemen, as our Kaiser is in the habit of saying: consilio et industria! Thank you, gentlemen.’
The constant rush of the river had a soothing effect on the passengers of the barge. Johann was sitting on the outer ledge of the cabin gazing at the swell of the current. His anger had worn itself out and his memories had receded, and even though his feeling of inner emptiness remained, his thoughts were clearer at last.
He had got his revenge sure enough for von Pranckh was dead, and he had avenged the death of his comrades, who had been put to death following the mutiny. But at what price? Granted, von Pranckh had got his comeuppance but that wouldn’t bring back his dead comrades. And Elisabeth, the love of his life, had ultimately been denied him.
Johann leant overboard, dipped his hand into the icy water and washed his face. All at once he realised there was only one more thing he still had to do: find Elisabeth and wrest her from the clutches of the Dominican henchmen. After that he would have no qualms about answering for his deeds before the Lord–and this he would surely do when his time came.
The Prussian let out a moan and in his delirium seized the bandage round his thigh. Johann sat down beside him and loosened his friend’s grasp. ‘Stick it out, my friend,’ whispered Johann, ‘there’s still something we’ve got to do.’
Johann gently covered him with a felt blanket though there were already beads of sweat on his forehead.
Stick it out.
He gazed starboard where the setting sun had daubed the sky a delicate orange. Count von Binden came towards him and pointed towards the bow. ‘We’re almost there, you can already see Deutsch-Altenburg.’
Johann looked ahead. In the distance he could see a few low-built houses visible on the starboard shore.
‘Leave the talking to me,’ said the Count. ‘I know the people round here.’
They moored the barge at the jetty, from where they could see the crooked, but solid-looking cottages on shore. Three of the Count’s men were standing guard at the end of the gangplank in order to deter curious onlookers and beggars. Not far away some children could be seen playing with a rusty barrel hoop.
Johann waited patiently at the Prussian’s side, though it already seemed an eternity since the Count had gone ashore with his daughter. Hans and Karl were standing silently on the bow, keeping an eye open for potential trouble.
The sun had almost set by the time von Binden came hurrying along the landing stage with a man carrying a black bag. They quickly came aboard.
The barber surgeon had dishevelled, snow-white hair, an elongated face and hands like shovels. Without a word, he sat down beside the Prussian, opened an old, battered-looking bag that contained a selection of silver instruments, and checked the man’s breathing and pulse.
Johann, Hans and Karl looked on anxiously.
The physician wrinkled his brow, which was covered with age spots, and examined the dark red bandage on the man’s thigh. ‘Bullet wound, I take it?’
Johann nodded. The physician pulled a face.
‘I shall have to loosen the bandage,’ he said, the Bohemian accent in his husky voice as unmistakable as the stench of wine on his breath. ‘If the bleeding has stopped and the lead bullet hasn’t exploded, then there’s still hope. But if the blood starts gushing out, then not even the high-born, personal physician of our -’ he cleared his throat noisily, ‘dear Kaiser will be able to help him.’
He glanced, red-eyed, at the men. Then he carefully loosened the bandage. The Prussian moaned as the saturated rag was prised away from his thigh but there was no spurting of blood, as feared.
‘Well, that’s something at least’, said the physician. He spread the wound, blackened with gun-smoke, with his thumb and forefinger and examined it. Then he licked the forefinger of his other hand and gently poked it into the wound.
Butchers and healers, one and the same, thought Johann.
‘It looks like the main artery’s intact, he might pull through,’ said the physician, closing his bag and getting unsteadily to his feet. ‘I can’t abide boats, bring him over to my farm.’
And with that he was gone.
Markus lifted the Prussian as gently as if he were a filigree porcelain figurine and carried him ashore, with the others following anxiously behind him.
Johann looked around. To call the physician’s shack a farm was like calling a foxhole a cathedral! Its walls were made of battered timber, the joints roughly plastered with loam, and the rotting reeds on the roof smelt as if a whole company of soldiers had relieved themselves on top of it.
Johann took a deep breath and tried to stay calm.
The man is offering to help. Show some gratitude.
The Prussian was lying on a wooden table in the middle of the room. The physician had laid out his silver instruments on a clean linen cloth beside him, whilst behind him the tips of several branding irons could be seen sticking out of an open fire. Two oil lamps hanging from a heavy ceiling beam gave off sufficient light for their purposes.
‘I shall have to cut out the bullet,’ explained the barber surgeon. ‘I hope he won’t lose too much–‘ he broke off and looked at Hans. ‘You! Get me a lamb from one of the neighbour’s farms! Tell them Leonardus sent you and he’ll pay later.’
Hans was puzzled as to why he should be sent to get food in the middle of an emergency but he nodded nonetheless and raced out of the door.
Then Leonardus fetched several very long straps, of a hand’s width, and strapped the Prussian as tightly as he could to the table top.
‘Need any help?’ asked Johann.
The physician shook his head. ‘But stay here with the Count. If the fellow wakes up, you’ll have to hold him down, the straps won’t be sufficient.’ With that, he picked up a dark, earthenware pitcher and gulped down so much wine that it dribbled out of the corners of his mouth and over his belly. Then he belched, wiped his face on his sleeve and assumed an air of bravery. ‘Now then!’
Johann gave von Binden a worried look but the latter did not respond.
The physician cut open the wound on the Prussian’s thigh to half a hand’s width, licked his thumb and forefinger and began to poke around inside it. The Prussian groaned and his limbs began to jerk. ‘Bear up, old pal,’ said Johann softly, holding his comrade’s head.
Leonardus pulled a face. ‘Where are you, you goddamned–’
More blood began to gush from the wound and von Binden went to grab a cloth.
‘Leave it, milord Count, that way the wound stays cleaner,’ said the physician matter-of-factly, continuing to poke his finger into the incision. The Prussian groaned more loudly and Johann wiped the sweat from his comrade’s brow.
Bear up, old pal, bear up for my sake!
‘Ah–got you!’ shouted the physician, jerking his finger out. He held the lead bullet to the light and squinted at it. ‘You seem to be intact, you nasty, little–’
‘Mr Leonardus!’ interjected Johann, pointing to the bleeding wound.
The physician gestured reassuringly, placed the bullet to one side and picked up one of the glowing irons from the fire. ‘He’s not going to like this,’ he said and he pressed the iron onto the wound.
The Prussian tried to rear up but the straps held him fast. Instantly, the room was filled with the sickly smell of burnt flesh and memories of the field hospital after battle flashed through Johann’s mind. The physician laid aside the iron and picked up a wooden spatula, removed a glob of a brownish, gooey substance from a ceramic receptacle behind him and spread it onto a linen cloth. Then he pressed the cloth against the wound.
‘You’ll need to change the cloth four times a day and put fresh turpentine ointment on it,’ he ordered Johann sternly. ‘And always use a fresh rag, understood?’
Johann nodded and felt the Prussian’s pulse. ‘His heart is racing. No, wait–it’s getting slower and slower!’
Leonardus had not failed to notice it too, along with the sweat on his patient’s brow and his increasing pallor. ‘He’s lost too much blood.’
At that moment Hans came in, carrying a sleepy-eyed lamb in his arms.
‘Not a moment too soon!’ cried the barber surgeon, seizing the lamb. He placed it beside the Prussian’s arm and strapped it swiftly to the table top. The animal began to bleat and writhe about under the straps.
‘What in God’s name are you up to?’ cried Johann, grabbing hold of Leonardus’ arm.
‘If you want your friend to have even a ghost of a chance of surviving then let me get on with what I have to do,’ replied the physician, glaring at Johann. He stank of booze and his eyes were bloodshot but there was determination in them.
The man is helping. Probably.
Johann let the physician go, stepped backwards and took hold of his friend’s head again.
Leonardus gave a slight nod, snatched up his knife and with a few flicks of the wrist sheared a section of the lamb’s neck. Then he bound the head of the struggling animal tightly to the underarm of the Prussian with a rope, and skilfully cut away the flesh from around the lamb’s carotid artery without puncturing it. The bleating of the poor lamb rose now to a wail, which pierced the hearts of all those present.
Except the heart of the physician, it seemed, who was behaving as calmly as if he were enjoying a symphony. Carefully, he pulled out a wooden casket, ornately decorated with inlaid patterns, and opened it.
Johann leaned to one side and peeped inside. The casket was lined with red velvet and contained a pair of silver scissors as well as several cannulas made of brass and glass, and some another instruments, which Johann had never seen before.
He felt decidedly uneasy. Should he intervene again and stop the man, who was probably a charlatan, from carrying out any more wondrous practices on his friend? Or should he let him carry on?
Your feelings tell you what your head can’t yet understand.
One of Abbot Bernardin’s well-intentioned maxims. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened inside himself. What would the Prussian do in his place?
Anything to keep you alive.
Johann opened his eyes. He had made up his mind.
The physician had in the meantime taken the utensils out of the casket and laid them on the table in an order that seemed to make sense to him alone. Then he hesitated.
Don’t do it, thought Johann, stay clear-headed.
Reaching for the earthenware pitcher, Leonardus did what Johann had hoped he wouldn’t do and took another big gulp of wine. Having sated himself, he winked at Johann, set aside the pitcher and, picking up a curved pair of scissors, made a slight incision in the lamb’s carotid artery.
All at once the lamb stopped wailing, closed its eyes but kept breathing. The physician picked up a glass cannula, to which was attached a thin tube made of intestine, inserted it into the artery and tied it fast.
Johann and the others watched, riveted.
The physician took hold of a scalpel and made an incision about the length of three fingers in the Prussian’s underarm, spread the wound, opened another artery with the curved scissors and inserted a glass cannula, which also had a bent tube attached to it. Then he opened the pinchcock of the cannula in the neck of the lamb and a thin stream of blood began to run out of the tube. Leonardus pulled the tube off the cannula in the Prussian’s arm and inserted the tube filled with lamb’s blood.
Then he stopped for a moment to admire his masterpiece. ‘The transfusion is now underway!’ he cried triumphantly, looking round at the others. They scarcely gave him a glance for they were all staring instead at the Prussian who was looking more dead than alive.
Leonardus shrugged his shoulders and quietly began to count.
All at once the Prussian’s breathing became more frantic, his face turned bright red and sweat streamed down his forehead. Then he opened his eyes and looked about him in panic.
‘Johann? Where are we? Where–’ he cried, trying to rear up against the leather straps that held him fast.
‘Johann, something is rolling down my back–’ he said, his face contorted in agony.
‘For crying out loud, help him!’ shouted Johann, without understanding what his friend had meant. The physician took hold of the Prussian’s neck. ‘His pulse is hard and slow, that’s not unusual,’ he said, in an attempt at reassurance.
‘My chest,’ groaned the Prussian, ‘it’s getting tighter and tighter–it’s crushing me–’
Johann looked down at his friend. The arteries of his arms and hands looked very swollen and his skin was flushed.
‘Help me–’ cried the Prussian. Then he passed out again.
‘I already have,’ said Leonardus, stopping the transfusion by clamping the pinchcock at the end of the cannula in the Prussian’s arm. Then he yanked out the cannula and placed a clean linen cloth on the wound.
‘And violà, as the French say so prettily. The deed is done,’ declared the physician. He pulled the cannula out of the lamb’s artery and untied the unconscious animal. Then he picked it up and pressed it into the arms of the Count, who was rather taken aback. ‘Guten Appetit, sir, you paid for it after all!’
Von Binden went out without a word. Johann noticed the Prussian’s breathing was steadier and his pulse regular. He gave the physician a quizzical look. ‘Now what?’
‘Let him have several days’ rest. Sleep is the best medicine. He’ll probably get the ague later on today but that’ll pass after a few hours. And his skin might itch for a few days and turn red but he’ll manage to cope with that I think, won’t he?’
Johann looked sharply at the physician. ‘But he’ll pull through?’
‘He already has, as you see, but how long this state is likely to continue I cannot, with the best will in the world, say. He will die of course.’
Johann stared at him, aghast.
‘Eventually. As we all will,’ said the physician with a laugh. He helped himself to another swig of wine and lit his pipe. ‘And now off you go, I too deserve a bit of rest.’
The cool evening air outside was a shock. Johann, Hans and Karl took a few deep breaths.
‘Animal and man joined together–that’s not the will of God,’ said Hans, shaking his head.
‘It’s all the same when it comes down to it, even if he’d joined him with a sow–as long as it helps,’ said Karl, grinning at Hans.
Von Binden was sitting on a barrel, chewing tobacco and watching his daughter trying to balance a stick on her nose. She was managing it pretty well, if only for a few moments at a time.
Johann sat down beside him.
‘Has he survived?’ asked von Binden, without taking his eyes off his daughter.
Johann nodded with a grunt. ‘I’ve heard of such methods but never thought they were actually put into practice.’
‘‘The church does everything it can to prevent them. New ideas are always the work of the devil!’
‘Was it the work of the devil then?’ asked Johann, looking at von Binden doubtfully. Von Binden shrugged his shoulders.
‘What isn’t the work of the devil? We’re all born sinners and we die sinners, and during our lives we commit sins, that’s the way it is. I think, if the treatment helps, then it can’t be so very wrong.’
Johann cleared his throat. ‘I bet the lamb doesn’t see it that way.’
Von Binden couldn’t help smiling to himself. ‘Some say the animal’s characteristics are transferred to the human being through its blood.’
‘So the Prussian’s going to become–as meek as a lamb then?’ said Johann, with a guffaw. ‘That’ll be the day!’
The two men continued to watch with amusement the acrobatic arts of the girl in front of them. It was a tranquil moment, the first in a long time.
‘I wonder what a physician of his calibre is doing in a village like this. Couldn’t he be a court physician?’
‘Leonardus hasn’t always lived here,’ said von Binden. ‘I first met him at the court of Prince Ferdinand August von Lobkowicz, the Duke of Sagan. The Duke’s daughter had a serious riding fall when a yapping dog frightened her horse and bit a chunk out of her thigh. That spelled death–for the mutt,’ said the Count with a fleeting grin. ‘His daughter failed to make a recovery, though. Nothing helped–not bloodletting, not herbal tinctures, not prayers. When she was finally at death’s door, the Prince summoned Leonardus to his court and ordered him to give her a transfusion, a method much talked about. Leonardus was against it for he knew the child was too weak. But the Prince assured him that he would incur no blame should the unthinkable happen. So Leonardus carried out the procedure to the best of his knowledge and belief but the girl died a few hours after the transfusion.’
The Count spat out a bit of chewing tobacco. ‘Prince von Lobkowicz was distraught. He not only cut off all Leonardus’ privileges but he also did everything to ensure that no blue blood ever consulted him again. Or anyone else for that matter. Leonardus lost all his possessions, all his privileges and finally his wife. After that, he came to live here in Deutsch-Altenburg. He’s never got over what happened.’
‘So that’s why he overdoes it with the wine,’ said Johann, pensively.
‘No,’ retorted von Binden, ’he always was a drinker.’
Billows of gun smoke everywhere, and the sound of screams and the bark of commands. The dead and the wounded lay at their feet.
There was the sharp report of guns firing.
Suddenly the Prussian slumped to the ground beside Elisabeth and they both fell over. There was blood streaming from the Prussian’s leg. ‘Elisabeth–’
She stared at him, horror-struck. Scrambling to her feet, she stretched out her hand to him–a hand streaked with black veins.
At that moment a soldier shot up behind her, grabbed hold of her and dragged her off. She put up a fierce struggle but to no avail.
She caught a last glimpse of Karl helping the Prussian to his feet and dragging him towards the barge, to where Johann was waiting.
Then there was a black carriage in front of her and a door opened …
Elisabeth was jolted out of her doze. The prison waggon gave her no peace. The other prisoners were lying higgledy-piggledy, trying to snatch some sleep too if only to stop their minds from running upon the same questions.
Where are they taking us? What are they going to do with us?
Suddenly they heard commands being shouted outside, muffled by the heavy tarpaulin, and the waggon slowed to a standstill.
The prisoners woke each other up and there was general disquiet. They waited in the darkness, dreading that the end had finally come.
Footsteps came towards the door and then stopped. Elisabeth held her breath.
The tarpaulin was loosened from outside and pulled back. Light glared into the waggon, making the prisoners flinch. A few of them crawled frantically back into the dark corners to hide their sensitive skin from the daylight.
Although it was painful, Elisabeth opened her eyes slightly. She had to know whether it wasn’t perhaps–
The silhouettes of several men were standing in front of the door. No chance of escape then.
A key turned in the lock and the door was wrenched open. Four mercenaries had formed a guard of honour, and a fifth stuck his head into the carriage. ‘Outside all of you!’ he barked. ‘You can take a leak over there and have a drink from that well. Then you can spend the night in that farmstead. Anyone who tries to escape will be shot, and anyone who causes any trouble, likewise. And anyone who gets on my nerves too! Any questions? No, that’s good!’
Trembling, Elisabeth climbed first out of the carriage, aching all over from having been sitting for so long. She glanced about her in the wan evening light, which she had at first mistaken for the glaring midday sun. The horizon was brighter to her right, so they must be heading southwards. There was a burnt-out farmstead nearby with large, white St Andrew’s crosses painted on its gates, somewhat weather-beaten. Elisabeth recognized the warning signs only too well: the farm had been hit by the plague.
The first of the prisoners bolted towards the well and greedily scooped up some water, and mothers vanished behind the bushes with their children whilst the mercenaries watched them like hawks. Others chose to remain in the protective darkness of the waggons until nightfall.
The black carriage had come to a standstill outside a Gasthaus further along the wayside.
Elisabeth took big breaths of the cool evening air and it helped to clear her head.
Of all the questions that were bothering her, only two were of any real importance: where was Johann now? And how in the world would he ever be able to find her?
She had no answers to these questions at present. There was only one thing she could do–stay alive and try to escape if she got the chance. She owed Johann that much, she owed her child that much.
She stroked the almost imperceptible bulge of her belly. Then she heard crying, looked up and saw one of the mercenaries driving a mother with two small children out of the bushes. ’Get on with it, we haven’t got all evening!’
There were tears streaming down the children’s little cheeks, which were criss-crossed with black veins.
Elisabeth took her hand away from her stomach and felt her tears welling up. Hastily she wiped them away and went to the well.
A bonfire crackled in the centre of the circle of villagers and gypsies, who had pitched camp with their waggons only a few hours ago. There was joking and laughter and plenty of eating and drinking going on, as if the company had known each other for ages and were celebrating a reunion. Two musicians were playing chirpy melodies on the fiddle and the chalumeau, lending an air of melancholy to the proceedings.
Johann gazed around. He smiled at the children clapping in time with the music, the men drinking and the maids dancing, knowing all the while that what he wanted most was to be up and away and looking for Elisabeth. He felt a sense of pressure building up inside him, making him restless.
Markus sat beside him, gnawing at the last rib of the roast lamb. Victoria Annabelle was fast asleep under a coarse blanket, her head in her father’s lap.
Hans and Karl were embracing each other and laughing and knocking back the booze.
The Prussian still hadn’t come round and the physician was snoring loudly as he kept watch over him inside the house.
Von Binden looked pensively at Johann ‘Don’t do it, you’ll come unstuck.’
Johann gave a start, as if he’d been caught doing something wrong. Von Binden shook his head. ‘You won’t be able to accomplish anything on your own. You must be patient. Together you’ll be able to find her.’
‘Perhaps that’ll be too late, milord Count.’
‘Perhaps,’ replied the Count, biting off a bit of tobacco. ‘But if you go it alone you’re bound to fail.’
Johann gazed into the fire. He knew von Binden was right. And he cursed him for it.
Von Binden spat at the floor, then he raised his tankard with a grin. ‘And please call me Samuel!’
‘Save your strength, you’re going to need it.’ Von Pranckh’s words hammered in Johann’s head.
Then he saw the glint of the instrument in his enemy’s hand as he strode towards him, and the walls of the dungeon started to close in.
A burning pain overwhelmed his senses, leaving him gasping as von Pranckh rammed and twisted the blade into his side.
He paused briefly, waiting for the pain to subside, before twisting the iron spiral a bit further into Johann’s flesh.
Johann knew that this time there was no escape.
Forgive me, Elisabeth.
Waves of scalding pain washed over his body. Everything was spinning, and he felt the release of unconsciousness beckoning him.
And again the pain came … again and–
Johann opened his eyes wide. Victoria Annabelle was standing in front of him, poking him in the shoulder with the stick that she had tried yesterday to balance on her nose. A mischievous smile flitted across her face when she realised he was awake and she dashed back into the hut.
Johann touched his shoulder, feeling the wound he’d got from von Pranckh.
It was still painful.
He gazed round. The rays of the rising sun glanced pleasantly off the little cottages of Deutsch-Altenburg, and the straw beneath him was warm and soft. Yesterday’s camp fire was still smouldering and a smoky haze lay over everything.
It was quiet in the village, except for a few gypsy women chatting and laughing as they did their washing in the Danube. Johann got up and stretched. He could feel a gentle throbbing in his head, probably from the tankard of wine which he had drained yesterday with von Binden. Or the one after it.
He went into the barber surgeon’s cottage. On the table where yesterday the Prussian had lain was a wooden tureen of steaming beer soup. Leonardus, von Binden, Victoria Annabelle, Hans and Karl were already seated round the table, the effects of yesterday evenings’ celebrations still apparent in the men’s faces.
Without a word, Johann perched himself on a stool and ladled some soup into the bowl in front of him. Then he crumbled some bread into it and stirred it with a spoon.
‘We thank you, oh Lord, for this meal,’ murmured the physician, crossing himself. The others followed suit.
Johann took a gulp of soup and the small beer tasted full-flavoured and hearty. He gazed at the faces round the table, all trace of yesterday’s frivolity gone, their minds back on their escape and everything they had left behind them.
‘Ah, risen from the dead!’ exclaimed Leonardus suddenly.
Everyone gazed towards the figure staggering out of the back room–it was the Prussian.
‘Heinz, you old–!’ cried Johann, springing to his feet and running to help his friend. The Prussian waved him off grumpily, cuffing him on the collar with his right hand. ‘Save that for old women and the Tyrolese yokels, deserter!’
‘I’ll let you off that sort of cheek today but that’s all you’ll get away with,’ retorted Johann, giving him a hug.
‘Isn’t love a wonderful thing?’ joked Karl. Hans and Victoria Annabelle giggled.
‘Come and sit down. How are you feeling?’ inquired Leonardus, peering at him.
‘I’m feeling more or less okay,’ replied the Prussian, ‘it’s not the first time I’ve been shot at.’
‘But it could have been the last,’ retorted the barber surgeon.
‘My time obviously wasn’t up yet,’ said the Prussian, grinning. Then he sat down at the table, slowly and stiffly like a very old man.
‘More or less okay? Well I’ll be damned!’ murmured Leonardus.
The Prussian looked at him grimly and Johann pushed a bowl of steaming soup towards him. The Prussian picked up a spoon, dipped it into the soup and lifted it unsteadily to his mouth. He swallowed and beamed with satisfaction. ‘And now I’m starting to feel even better,’ he said, spooning the soup more quickly into his mouth.
The others grinned.
When the Prussian had finished, he put down his spoon. ‘And now, tell me what happened! I know we almost made it, we’d almost reached the barge when the bullet caught me. I had to let go of Elisabeth and–’
He stopped mid-sentence and glanced round.
Von Binden shook his head. The Prussian looked at Johann, whose eyes had now assumed a fixed stare.
‘Johann, is she–’
‘Dead? No, not as far we know,’ cut in von Binden, answering for Johann.
‘I don’t understand–’
‘She was captured by some soldiers, we only just managed to drag you to the barge in time,’ said Hans.
‘They dragged her towards a black carriage, as far we could make out,’ Karl continued.
‘Has it all been for nothing then?’ The Prussian was stunned.
‘No, my friend, for as soon as you’re well again I’m going to look for her–and I’m going to find her, even if I have to go to hell and back again,’ said Johann with a determination that defied all doubt.
‘What are we waiting for then?’ asked the Prussian, standing up and staggering so much that he had to sit back down again. Bright flashes of light flickered before his eyes. He took a few deep breaths, then he felt someone press something into his hand. ‘Drink!’ he heard the physician say.
With a trembling hand, the Prussian raised the mug and took a gulp. It was wine, and it tasted atrocious–but it made the flashes of light disappear.
‘The heroic deeds will have to wait a couple of days,’ said Leonardus, taking the wine from the Prussian and gulping some down himself.
‘Yes, listen to the barber surgeon and don’t be as–stubborn as a ram,’ joked Hans, beginning to laugh.
‘Just be as gentle as a lamb,’ added Karl, thumping his thigh.
The Prussian looked at Johann in bewilderment but Johann waved his hand. ‘I’ll explain later.’
The night in the farmstead was a nightmare.
After sunset, the mercenaries had distributed mouldy bread, rancid cheese and other rotten foodstuffs, not fit for pigs even by farmers’ standards, but at least the prisoners had something with which to fill their bellies. Then they had all been forced to lie down on the damp, wooden floor for the ‘obligatory night’s rest’, as it was called. Gradually the sound of wailing and children crying had died away until only the wind could be heard howling through the ruins.
Elisabeth had lain awake for hours thinking about the scene on the shore of the Danube, her longing for Johann growing all the while. But she knew she had to be strong and so she tried to pluck up her courage. Johann had escaped the grim reaper many times. He has was bound to be searching for her with the Prussian and his other friends. She trusted this man unconditionally, and this time he would again–
‘Do you really trust him? After all, he lied to you so that he could get to Vienna. And if you hadn’t both gone to Vienna, you wouldn’t be where you are now.
Elisabeth tried to ignore the voice. Johann had had his reasons. He had had to kill von Pranckh.
It’s over now. What had happened, had happened. This was no time to think about blame. Of course Johann shouldn’t have gone to Vienna; just as she shouldn’t have ignored Josefa’s advice when Johann and the Prussian were imprisoned. And she knew only too well what had happened then, when she’d been attacked by the two villains and had–
–infected them both.
Her going off on her own like that had almost led to a whole city being wiped out.
Her thoughts darkened. She bowed her head and prayed, something that had always offered her solace since she was a child. She prayed for Johann and their child, for the sick and for Josefa, who had been torn from life only a few days before. She prayed too for Konstantin von Freising, the Jesuit, whom she hadn’t seen since that night in the dungeon of the Inquisition.
At last, just before dawn, she fell into a restless sleep.
At daybreak they got back into the prison waggons again. Elisabeth glanced one more time at the burnt-out farmstead, then the tarpaulin was pull tight again.
With a jolt, the waggon trundled off and all it began again, just like the day before: a journey into the unknown, in complete darkness.
The Prussian woke up to find himself in a little, dark room in the physician’s cottage. His chest was itching so much that he scratched it until it was so sore that it hurt almost as much as the itching.
Pull yourself together, you’re a man, Josefa would have said.
The Prussian swallowed and felt his throat tighten with the pain of longing. Since he had come round, he couldn’t stop thinking about his beloved wife, her laughter, all her good qualities, her love.
And her death.
He swore to himself that when all this was over and Johann had got Elisabeth back again and there was nothing more for him to do in the world, he would follow Josefa to the grave.
But not yet.
He passed his hand over his face and rubbed his forehead until his gloomy thoughts were dispelled. Then he slipped on his linen shirt and staggered into the parlour.
The barber surgeon was sitting with his cheeks aglow staring into the crackling fire, his hands affectionately entwined round an earthenware tankard of wine.
‘This blasted itching,’ said the Prussian. ‘When’s it going to stop?’
Leonardus stared at him glassy-eyed, as if he weren’t sure who it was standing in front of him. Then he blinked several times. ‘Oh, that usually disappears after a few days. Nearly everyone gets that, it’s probably got something to do with the lambs.’
Johann had already told the Prussian the evening before about the curious transfusion. ‘The lambs? How many did it take then?’ asked the Prussian, with a wry expression.
The physician grinned. ‘You know what they say: it needs three sheep to carry out a transfusion of sheep’s blood: one to give the blood, one to receive it, and one to do the transfusion.’
He burst into loud laughter. The Prussian wanted to box the old drunkard’s ears but he got a hold of himself, nodded and went outside.
The wind had come up and it was chilly as the day drew to a close. The inhabitants of Deutsch-Altenburg were making use of what remained of the daylight to finish off their business for the day.
The Prussian ran his fingers through his hair. He still didn’t know what to make of the fact that he now had animal blood coursing through his veins. But still, he was alive.
Whether that was a curse or a blessing was another matter.
He saw Johann perched on an overturned tree trunk on the riverbank and went over to him.
The men sat and watched the ebb and flow of the river and the crests of the waves dancing in the wind, each lost in his own thoughts.
‘I’m going to start looking for Elisabeth the day after tomorrow,’ said Johann at last.
‘I can’t say yet whether I’ll be–’
Johann made a deprecatory gesture. ‘It’s my problem, not yours. I only waited until I was sure you were going to make it. It would be better for you to rest a bit longer.’
‘We’ll see,’ grunted the Prussian, scratching a large scar on his face that extended as far as his left ear. ‘That quack doctor smeared some sort of herbal mixture on the wound. It itches like hell but it seems to be healing alright.’
‘I don’t even know where to start looking,’ exclaimed Johann, who was preoccupied with his own thoughts. ‘I can’t go back to Vienna–they’ll string me up before I get within a mile of the city walls. And if the carriage has already left the city, then she could be anywhere.’
‘I’d speak to the Count, he seems to have a few contacts. And he’s a man of honour, he’s proven that,’ said the Prussian.
‘Yes, who would have thought it of a blue blood!’
‘And a Protestant to boot’ added the Prussian drily.
They grinned, remembering Elisabeth’s consternation when she had first met von Binden.
‘There’s one thing clergymen are really good at,’ said the Prussian, ‘and that’s killing off anyone who’s different, it doesn’t matter whether he’s a Protestant, Jew or outcast.’
‘I’ve known a few good ones though,’ retorted Johann. ‘Men like Father von Freising or Burkhart von Metz. Just and strong, always ready to fight for the weak with word and sword.’
‘But they have no say,’ answered the Prussian. ‘It’s the same as it was with us in the army–what’s the point of a soldier having a conscience when someone like von Pranckh is giving the orders?’
‘But we did something about, didn’t we?’
‘And where did it get us? Von Pranckh made it to the top and almost nabbed us in Vienna. Wars against anything or anyone different will continue until doomsday,’ said the Prussian, lowering his voice. ‘And it’s the weak who end up being out of pocket for they have to pay with their lives.’
The Prussian waved him away. The two men were silent. It was dusk soon afterwards and they went inside.
Count von Binden pressed a coin into the ragged man’s hand. The man bit it quickly and then dashed off as fast as his legs would carry him.
Von Binden went towards the physician’s hut, where Hans, Karl, Markus and Johann were gutting the fish they had caught that morning in the river. Johann looked at him expectantly. ‘Well?’
‘The black carriage left Vienna the same day,’ said the Count. ‘Together with two waggons, covered with tarpaulin. They were heading south apparently.’
Johann jumped to his feet. ‘Thank you. Then–’
Von Binden waved him off. ‘Not so fast. The expedition was escorted by more than a dozen mercenaries.’
‘A dozen?’ exclaimed Karl in astonishment. ‘What are they escorting that’s so important?’
‘No one knows. Or wants to know. But apparently it’s got something to do with the pestilence that broke out in the city.’
Johann racked his brain. There was something in von Binden’s words that struck him: a carriage, two other waggons–mercenaries–and suddenly memories surfaced and he was back on that ill-fated day.
He and von Pranckh were standing facing one another on a flat-bottomed, wooden boat, with the dark, stormy sky above.
Von Pranckh was pointing a pistol at him. ‘Adieu, List, we’ll go our separate ways from now onwards. But thanks to you, General Feuillade will be getting a very special present.’
‘Feuillade!’ cried Johann.
‘Feu-what?’ asked Hans.
‘General Feuillade. Von Pranckh said, thanks to me, he would be getting a very special present.’
‘You’re giving a Frenchman a present?’ demanded Karl, astonished.
‘Nonsense,’ interjected the Prussian, coming out of the cottage with a grin on his face. ‘The only thing Johann ever gave a Frenchman was a bullet.’
Hans and Karl grinned but Johann was dead serious. He turned to von Binden. ‘Does the name mean anything to you?’
The Count nodded. ‘General La Feuillade is marching this very minute on Turin, along with Marshal Vendôme and the French troops.’
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