VOLUME 1 OF THE HIGHLY GRIPPING MORBUS DEI-TRILOGY Getting caught in a snowstorm, deserter Johann List ends up in a secluded mountain village ridden by fear and superstition. Soon he realises that there is something wrong with this village, that it lies beneath a grim shadow - animals get killed, people disappear, hooded shapes lurk in the dark woods. When Johann falls in love with the daughter of a farmer, they decide to leave the village together. But even before they are able to elope, the situation escalates - a life and death struggle begins. Authentically and vividly the author duo tells a story full of tragedy and emotion and allows you to travel back 300 years in time. Morbus Dei: The Arrival - a brilliant combination of mystery thriller and historical novel. ***New translation: more than 300 reviews on Amazon.de (avg. 4.4) for the German edition!*** ********************************************************************************** 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 Arrival
Translated from the German language by Claire Speringer
Originally published in German language as Morbus Dei. Die Ankunft
© 2010 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
Graphical presentation of the cover: hoeretzeder grafische gestaltung, Scheffau/Tirol, following a design by Bastian Zach
Cover picture: www.istockphoto.com
Author photo: Sabine Zach
Depending on the reading device used, varying depictions of the published texts are possible.
In occulto vivunt.
The black ink sank into the parchment so that the full stop at the end of the sentence began to run. The scribe hurriedly blotted the ink, and then leaned back and closed his eyes.
They live in hiding.
The bare room in which he was sitting was scarcely lit by a few meagre candles. Everything was suffused with a deep stillness, save for the shadows of the flickering candles that danced relentlessly on the crudely whitewashed stone walls.
‘Gratia, you can go now’. The crouching female figure stood up, hurriedly pulled up her coarse hood and hastened out of the room. The wooden door closed heavily behind her.
Wrapped in his own thoughts, the scribe took a gulp of red wine and stared into the darkness. How much time did he have left to chronicle the unspoken? How much longer would they be borne on sufferance? He put down his quill beside the inkwell and cast his eyes over the last entries of his chronicle. The Latin text was interspersed with illustrations depicting faces, hands and teeth, all of them horribly disfigured, marking the steady progression of disease …
The further he turned back the pages, the less pronounced the signs of the disease. He shook his head thoughtfully, then took up his quill again.
Just as he was about to dip it into the ink, a loud crash came from behind the massive wooden door.
The scribe’s blood ran cold.
He could hear scraps of conversation, women and children crying, men shouting, their voices getting louder.
The hour had come.
The scribe closed his eyes and breathed out wearily. It had all been to no avail−the worst had come to pass. He turned to the most recent entry in his chronicle and dated it: November A.D.1647. Then he put down his quill beside the mound of candle wax and closed the ornate, leather-bound book. The old man knew that henceforth nothing would ever be the same again.
He could hear footsteps approaching, menacing footsteps, and then the door was wrenched open.
A gust of cold wind blew out all the candles in the room.
Anno Domini 1703
Johann List had bashed his face hard and was lying in the mud, motionless. Blood from the gash dripped down over his eyes and mingled with the dirty water in which he had landed. His head hurt and things around him seemed muffled as they were swathed in a fog−the howling of the storm, the rain pelting down on his body, footsteps coming closer. Then everything became blurred and he closed his eyes …
Don’t let yourself be cornered.
Johann listened to the voice inside his head as he had done so many times before in his life. With an effort, he rolled himself over onto his back.
Scarcely discernible in the pouring rain and the gleams of lightning was a figure standing over him, menacingly. The figure bent down towards him. Johann recognized the weasel-like face of the farmer he had lodged with for a few nights−and who had now just attacked him unawares with such cunning. Fury seized him at the thought of what had happened. He clenched his hands in the mud and painfully lifted himself up from the ground. The farmer grinned, then laid into him, pummelling Johann with blows.
Darkness descended on Johann.
The farmer kneeled over the unconscious man and searched his pockets with quick, practised fingers, his eyes sweeping over his victim’s lifeless face again and again to see if he was stirring. Suddenly he paused; carefully he pulled an object out of Johann’s trouser pocket. It was a knife, but not any old knife: from the fine silver chasing and the pristine blade it was clear that it had meant more to its owner than just a common or garden utensil.
‘From now on you belong to me …’ he whispered reverently.
‘No it doesn’t.’
By the time the farmer had heard Johann’s voice, it was too late: he was grabbed smartly by the wrist and before he knew what was happening, Johann had jumped to his feet and twisted his arm. The farmer let out a cry of pain and dropped the knife in the mud. Johann kicked him straight in the stomach and the farmer fell onto his back and lay on the ground, moaning in pain.
Johann seized his advantage and cast about quickly for the knife, his fingers burrowing in the muddy ground. A flash of lightening lit up the sky so that for a second it was as bright as day and he caught sight of the knife lying in a puddle. Relieved, he reached towards it and picked it up when all of a sudden a searing pain pierced his side.
The farmer had rammed a pitchfork into his left flank.
Johann’s legs gave way and he fell to the ground. As the farmer twisted the pitchfork and slowly pulled it out, it seemed to Johann as though his whole body was a burning mass of pain. He tried as hard as he could not to lose consciousness because he knew that it would be the end of him if he did− the farmer wasn’t going to let himself be surprised a second time.
Johann pressed his left hand against the gash in his side which was bleeding badly and turned over onto his back.
The farmer came and stood over him, the pitchfork still in his hand. ‘I’ve finished off tougher men than you, boy!’ he caterwauled. He lifted the fork, grinning, preparing to lunge it into Johann’s body one final time.
This gave Johann the split second he needed−he spun round with the knife in his hand and cut straight through the tendons of his opponent’s left knee.
The farmer stiffened in pain, an almost comical look of surprise on his face. Nothing, but nothing, had gone according to plan. He looked down at himself and watched, aghast, as his left trouser leg gradually darkened with the blood that seeped through. He began to totter but before his leg could buckle, Johann sprang to his feet and grabbed him by the neck. The farmer’s cry of pain stuck in his throat and Johann pushed him backwards again and again, right across the yard, until the farmer’s back banged against the wall of the house.
He stared at Johann, wide eyed with terror. Johann raised his knife, ready to plunge it into him one last time.
‘Have mercy!’ blubbered the farmer.
Johann thrust in the knife.
The farmer closed his eyes, a reflex action. Then he opened them again. The knife was a hair’s breadth from his head. He looked at Johann unsteadily.
‘What do you know about mercy?’ replied Johann. Sick with contempt, he wrenched the knife out of the blackened wood. He let go of the farmer who slumped to the ground and lay there whimpering.
Johann put the knife away and picked up the bundle containing his belongings, which was lying in the mud next to the entrance to the house. He pressed his hand against the wound in his side and made off in the direction of the forest without so much as glancing back at the farmer.
The treetops swayed violently in the fierce wind. The forest had little to offer him in the way of shelter against the pelting rain and the howling wind.
Johann tramped laboriously uphill through the rotten undergrowth. He was wet through and frozen to the bone, and his shirt and leather breeches were sticking to his skin. The laceration in his side had started bleeding badly again. Noticing it, he knelt down under a gnarled pine tree for shelter, pulled up one side of his shirt and tried in the darkness to make out the severity of his wound.
The cut was deep but seemed to be only a flesh wound with no organ damage. Johann let out a sigh of relief. He knew he would be safe from gangrene as long as he could stop the bleeding and keep the wound reasonably clean. He had seen men with worse injuries survive.
Johann opened his pack and took out his other shirt. He ripped off the sleeves, tied them together and wound them round his hips. The pain was agonizing but Johann clenched his teeth and pulled the knot as tightly as he could.
As he was tying up his bundle again, he was seized with a terrible suspicion. Quickly he searched through his few possessions, but it was gone.
The farmer had taken his money pouch.
All his recent pay was gone, all the money he had scrimped and saved. Johann felt a surge of rage and his hand closed instinctively round his knife.
Be merciful, even to those who are unworthy.
Those false commandments! If he could only …
A violent pain in his side brought him back to his senses. In his current state he was no match for the farmer. But he would return, and when he did, may God have mercy on him…
Johann breathed deeply. He shivered, and noticed for the first time how tired he was. He looked around, searching for shelter for the night. For a second, a bolt of lightning lit up the outline of an uprooted tree, invisible in the darkness. Johann spread out as much brushwood as he could carry and huddled under the massive roots.
Moments later he was asleep.
Johann woke up shivering. It was bitterly cold and his breath seemed to freeze in the icy air. The brushwood had been useless against the first night frost of the year, the cold had crept deep into his bones and his clothes were damp and stuck to his skin.
Still slightly dazed, he tried to orient himself. He looked around but he couldn’t distinguish anything. It was only when he’d rubbed the sleep from his eyes that he realised a thick fog had descended, preventing him from seeing more than a few fathoms ahead.
Winter was close.
That meant Johann had no time to lose. He stretched his limbs carefully, and then he examined his wound: the makeshift bandage was saturated with blood, and was sticking to the encrusted scab. Johann touched it gingerly. The wound was tender and ached, early signs of inflammation.
A splinter was probably still lodged in the wound. Johann knew what that meant: he would have to remove the abscess as quickly as possible or he would die from blood poisoning. It was a familiar story: more soldiers died afterwards from battle wounds than on the battlefield itself.
Johann picked himself up, took a few steps− and felt himself swaying. His whole body, even his face, felt swollen and his muscles ached. He bent down carefully, grabbed hold of his pack and tried again to get his bearings.
The sun had been swallowed up by the diffuse fog. Johann tried to make out the moss covered, north facing sides of the trees but they were coated right around with moss, as if they were wearing velvety dresses for winter.
Johann closed his eyes and tried to think. The route he’d taken yesterday flashed through his mind, the path leading him to the farmer’s inn, and other memories, taking him right back to the beginning of it all …
Johann suddenly opened his eyes. He had to press on. His instinct would point him in the right direction, it had never let him down yet.
Never? Are you sure?
Resolute, Johann set off in search of a place where he could rest and allow his wound to heal.
Walking alone, time always seemed to pass more slowly, as Johann knew only too well.
Perhaps it was because he would lose himself in his own thoughts−more often than was good for him in fact.
Now that he was injured, the minutes and hours seemed to stretch endlessly for Johann, and every step, every mile, seemed to take an eternity.
Perhaps it had been a mistake to leave behind what he−
A snap amongst the trees jerked him out of his thoughts. He stopped short, then slowly turned his head and looked behind him.
The farmer was unlikely to be after him but there might be an animal on his trail.
A wolf perhaps? Johann walked on cautiously, looking over his shoulder all the time, and then−his foot suddenly gave way beneath him and he stepped into thin air. Unable to grasp hold of anything, he crashed down a steep slope covered with bushes and undergrowth, hitting the ground hard.
Johann lay motionless. His heart raced, he breathed irregularly, and his whole body trembled.
He took several deep breaths, forcing himself to calm down.
Breathe. Just concentrate on your breathing.
After a few minutes, he had control of himself again. He looked about him. He was lying in a huge pit, a good three fathoms in diameter. The ground was covered with foliage and above him swirling patches of fog hung over the pit like a canopy. He realised it wouldn’t be easy to climb up the side of the pit but it wouldn’t be impossible−
Then he smelt it.
The sickly sweet stench he knew only too well.
Once you’d smelt it, you never forgot it−the stench of decay…
‘The perfume of battle’ his comrades had called it.
Johann swallowed hard, then tore the leaves aside. After a few moments he stopped.
Eyes, fractured and torn, stared at him through the rotting undergrowth.
He ripped away more of the leaves and there they were−corpses, some of them already completely decomposed. He wondered what had happened and where the dead bodies had come from. He had seen no sign of a village anywhere.
Some of the corpses had no shoes or clothing. He had seen a lot of things in his life but the scene that lay before him now cut him to the core: the naked corpses, carelessly tossed away like bits of old rubbish, the death pit, the deserted forest …
Johann noticed a corpse lying in front of him on its stomach; the man’s jacket was in rags and there were three deep stab wounds in his back. Not broad enough to have been caused by a knife, more likely a lance.
Or a pitchfork.
The thought struck him like a blow. He was where the farmer had intended him to be – in the death pit! Clearly Johann hadn’t been his first victim, not the only person he’d robbed and then tried to get rid of. The poor devils here in the pit were proof of that. Johann regretted now not having made short shrift of the bastard.
He stood up and counted at least seven−no, nine−dead. Further back, he could see a woman’s head and a child’s hand sticking out from between the leaves.
The son of a bitch!
Johann crossed himself. He was about to start the steep climb upwards when suddenly he caught sight of a big piece of leather, partially hidden by the corpse lying beside him. He pulled at it and it turned out to be a leather coat, beautifully made though a little frayed at the edges. It would do a better job of protecting him from the cold than the clothes he had on and the dead man surely wouldn’t begrudge him it. Johann wasted no time, he pulled on the heavy coat and laced it up. Then he began the arduous climb up the steep slope towards the top of the pit, grabbing hold of as many roots as he could find to pull himself up.
Finally, gasping for breath, he reached the edge of the pit and heaved himself out. He stood up, looked back at the dank grave below him and crossed himself again.
Then he continued on his way.
How long had he been trudging through this accursed forest? There was no path, the brushwood stuck out dangerously in all directions like spears and slowed him down, and the valley seemed to be getting narrower every minute.
But it was too late to turn back. He wouldn’t make it, not with the laceration in his side. His best bet was to make his way through the forest to another valley and find a village, or at least a farm.
You’ll pay for this one day, List. The day will come.
A different voice−one he’d never wanted to hear again. That he should hear it now seemed to him a bad omen. Perhaps the day had already come. Perhaps he should simply sit down and wait.
But just as his dark thoughts were gathering, the woods thinned out and he saw a chain of mountains peeping through the trees. Johann gave a silent cry of joy and thread his way hurriedly through the undergrowth, pushing aside a withered hazelnut bush as he went.
The majestic mountains of Tyrol stood before him, ranging as far as the eye could see. Their jagged peaks were lost in the heavy clouds and wafts of fog steamed from the woods that clambered up as far as the snow lines, as if they were breathing.
A rough, primitive landscape but beautiful, as in a dream.
In the distance Johann could make out stray falcons tracing wide circles in the air and scouting for prey. There was no sign of a village or farmhouse and yet he was exhilarated: for a brief moment, it was as if he were the lord of the whole land before him.
Which wasn’t true, of course.
No one could subdue this land. Not the Kaiser, nor the Bavarian invaders, not even the Tyroleans themselves. Nature at its most awesome brooked no challengers.
Johann pulled up his coat collar and started to make his way down towards the valley.
The grassy slope was slippery from continual rain and made his descent difficult. He kept scanning the countryside for some kind of shelter but the region seemed deserted. He couldn’t even spot any Hochalmen1.
Finally, he reached the narrow floor of the valley and sat down on a large moss-covered rock shaded by a crooked pine tree, trying to catch his breath. The euphoria he had felt earlier had vanished. It had started to rain heavily again and the rain had found its way through the seams of his coat and was beginning to trickle down his back.
He tried to reorient himself. If he kept going in a south easterly direction, he would get to Schwaz sooner or later, he reckoned. Then he could make his way along the old roads towards the west, away from the scenes of war and the devastated villages left behind in Tyrol by the Bavarian shindig.
He felt a cutting pain in his side. Johann loosened the bandage a little and took a look at his wound. The inflamed abscess was bigger now. Johann knew what he would have to do, sooner or later. The thought of it made him shudder. He retied the bandage. His eyes roamed darkly over the deserted landscape.
Suddenly his heart gave a leap: to the left was a path, scarcely discernible in the overgrowth, which wound its way along the floor of the valley in an easterly direction.
A path leading to a village perhaps. To people, who might take him in.
With a surge of renewed hope, Johann threw his pack onto his shoulder and set off along the path.
He trudged on and the hours passed. Dusk was descending now and the landscape was plunged into pale twilight. The path seemed to be leading him nowhere. It had narrowed considerably and the mountains around him seemed to get closer with every step−a feeling that had seemed comforting at first. Now the mountains seemed sullen and intimidating. The wound in his side was hurting again and the rain poured down relentlessly. Another night in the open would spell death for him.
All at once he came to a halt: there was something looming on the landscape a good two miles away: a wooden hut. Shelter! Johann gritted his teeth and fought his way through the undergrowth. He had to reach the hut before dark …
At last he drew near. It was clear from the rotten boards and the holes in the roof and the weeds that had pushed their way up through the floorboards that the barn had not been used for decades. But at least he didn’t have to sleep in the open.
He shoved some slats of wood across the entrance, scraped together some last remaining bits of straw to make a little pile and sat down. He felt a wave of exhaustion and closed his eyes.
The rain had finally stopped and the sky was swept almost clean of clouds. Shafts of chill moonlight stole in through the cracks and crannies so that stripes of light fell across Johann.
He opened his bundle and took out his last bit of bread. Except that it wasn’t bread anymore, but a lump of mouldy green fungus.
He looked at the foul-smelling clump. How he yearned for a bowl of thick, hearty soup, or a steaming plate of savoury stew with dumplings, or piece of meat roasted till it was crisp on the outside and the juices ran down your chin when you bit into it. And oh the delicious aromas! But memories weren’t enough to fill his belly. So he pulled himself together and bit off a chunk of bread, forcing himself to swallow the mass of mush. In a few bites it was gone, and with it his last ration of food.
Now what? How was he going to survive the coming days? He was too weak to hunt, berries and roots were scarce, and −
A shaft of pain went searing through his body, causing his muscles to spasm. The sore on his side was getting worse so that he had no choice now but to treat it.
Johann took off his shirt and tried, gingerly at first, to loosen the encrusted bandage. Every tug and pull caused him excruciating pain so that in the end he braced himself and tore off the bandage in one fell swoop.
A short, piercing scream resounded through the night, and then it was quiet again.
Trembling, Johann looked at the sore. There was severe inflammation round its edges and the skin surrounding it was pallid with bluish veins that stood out. Clumps of thick pus oozed from the centre of the abscess.
Gangrene had set in.
Trembling, Johann reached for his knife. He tried to talk himself into it. After all, things couldn’t get any worse than they already were.
Carefully he wiped the blade on his breeches and then he cut open the abscess. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead and tears rolled down his cheeks; he was breathing hard. He reached for a splint of wood that was lying on the floor, put it into his mouth and bit onto it hard.
He spread the wound apart with his left hand, forced his fingertips into flesh that was oozing with pus, deeper, searching …
Flashes of light began to dance before his eyes; the pain was excruciating and he felt his limbs grow weak. He struggled to hold on to consciousness. Then his fingers felt something sharp and he drew out what he’s been searching for: a broken prong from a pitchfork.
He threw away the blood-covered prong in disgust, then he spat out the piece of wood which he had bitten in two. The wound began to bleed profusely and the fresh blood cleaned it a little. The spot was difficult to reach, he couldn’t even pee on it−a method of disinfection he’d learnt from a miner. It had helped him many a time but it was probably too late for that anyway.
Johann searched for a clean bit of bandage and pressed it against the wound. He got dressed again, covered himself with this coat and huddled himself in a corner.
He could feel the cold coming up from between the floorboards and knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
A few moments later he was fast asleep.
1A farm, situated very high up a mountain, that is only used during summer.
He was standing in front of a wall of white gun smoke; there was a cacophony of screams, explosions and drum rolls that got louder and louder, and then there was a gleaming flash, and then silence.
The noise had been ear-splitting, unbearable, but now it was the cruelty of the utter silence that struck him.
Figures emerged from the fog, and then vanished again. Johann felt alone, but he wasn’t in a strange place. No, there was something horribly familiar about it but he couldn’t say how or why. He had no words to describe the feeling.
Something seemed to come towards him and he held his breath; it looked like−
Johann woke up in a sweat, his body trembling. His breaths came in fits and starts, puffing out little clouds in the icy air. He looked at the puddle of rain on the floor in front of him− it was frozen over, and in the corner opposite there was a huge mound of snow.
Winter had arrived.
Johann stood up quickly. Staggering, he caught hold of the wooden beam above him. The left side of his body was burning and the blood was rushing in his head. He felt his limbs grow weak and threaten to give way.
It can’t end like this. No! Pull yourself together! Focus on a goal!
His goal was to find shelter. Although Tyrol was sparsely populated, every now and again one came across a little settlement, or a mountain village, or at least a cluster of tiny hamlets or Hochalmen, tucked away in the valleys.
Then get going!
Johann pushed himself away from the wooden beam with a shove, removed the planks of wood from the entrance and looked out. The ground was covered with snow, at least one and a half cubits of it, and more was sluicing down from the grey, cloud-covered sky. The twirling snowflakes fell thickly onto the sparkling mantle that covered everything.
Johann’s heart sank. His journey would be even more arduous now. But he had no choice but to push on.
Johann picked up his bundle and walked out of the barn. He trudged a few feet, his tattered boots already deep in the snow and his toes numb.
It was going to be a hard day.
Johann turned round and gave the barn one last look, grateful for the one night’s shelter it had offered him. He caught sight of a carving chiselled in the jamb above the door. It was a circle but instead of a pentacle, which according to local belief kept hobgoblins away, it contained other symbols: a cross that cut through the circle lengthwise, overlaid with two lines curving outwards, which started at the bottom of the cross and finished at those points on the arms of the cross where the nails of the hands would be. The Greek letters X and P, which stood for Christ, the Saviour, were carved to the right and left of the circle.
The symbolism was new to Johann and he assumed it must be connected to some sort of local ritual.
He stared at it thoughtfully and it filled him with strange misgivings …
The sound of a thud made him jump and he looked round. A heap of snow had fallen from the collapsed roof of the barn. Johann took it as a warning not to waste time and set off.
The snow was falling more heavily now, making it difficult for him to see. He stumbled like a sleepwalker, lost in a shifting wall of dreams. A spray of fine snow flitted across the ground surface and whisked its way into armholes and flaps and down his collar. The cold took over his body, numbing his wound.
Towards noon−was it noon? He wasn’t sure−the storm subsided slightly. He had no idea where he was. It would have been no surprise to him to find he had been walking round in a circle and that he had come across the barn again.
And what if he had? What did it matter anymore?
Johann sat down on a rock that was jutting out of the snow and took a few deep breaths. The physical exertion and the fever had completely dehydrated him and although he kept putting fistfuls of snow in his mouth he was plagued by thirst.
The reality of his situation stared back at him. He was going to die here, in this white hell.
Oddly enough, the thought upset him less now than it had a few hours ago. Though he could hear the howl of the wind and feel the wet snow in his face, they were a muffled blur: the trees surrounding him, the clearing in front of him, the shadow …
Johann jumped unsteadily to his feet. He could make out the blurred outlines of a figure in the distance. He tried to call out but his voice broke into a croak. With an effort, he heaved himself up and lumbered towards the figure.
It was a cruel blow.
It wasn’t a person that was standing in front of him but a wooden crucifix, covered in snow. At first he was gutted. Then his thoughts began to race madly. There were usually paths leading to crucifixes, weren’t there? He sank to the ground and began shovelling away the snow with his bare hands. He worked doggedly until the area around the crucifix was cleared.
But there was no path to be found.
Johann let out a peal of hysterical laughter that got lost in the wind−a pitiable sound that died instantly in the bluster of the storm.
He looked around and then his eyes fell on the crucifix.
Slowly he wiped the snow off the holy cross. It had a frame of wattling in the shape of the symbol he’d seen in the barn. It struck him as strange and terrible and filled him with dread. Johann kneeled before the crucifix and prayed with all his might, something he hadn’t done in a long time.
Though he’d been brought up a Christian, his experiences of the last few years had made him doubt whether all the wrongs of the world were really the will of the Lord. To him, religion was either a refuge for the desperate or a display of power by the corrupt clergy. It was only in extreme adversity that Johann called on his faith, and by doing so he relegated himself with the desperate.
The crucifix looked down silently at Johann.
Then he raised his head and crossed himself slowly.
Help me, God!
Something moved ever so slightly in the brushwood to his right.
Johann spun round quickly and his eyes scanned the edge of the forest.
A red deer perhaps? Food. Or a person? Rescue.
‘Is anyone there?’ called Johann recovering his voice, but there was no reply save for the humming of the wind. ‘I need help!’ he shouted again, and was overtaken by a violent bout of coughing.
The coughing subsided, and he caught sight of something. There was a cleft visible on the right hand side of the valley; perhaps it was a tributary valley that led away from this deserted no man’s land.
How come he hadn’t noticed it before?
Johann glanced at the crucifix, then again at the cleft. He felt a flicker of hope. The cleft wasn’t far away, he could make it in a couple of hours or so, he reckoned. But it was a preposterous idea. He wouldn’t be able to keep going for even an hour. He fixed his eyes defiantly on the landmark and set off …
After an hour he was dragging himself along on all fours. But he was still moving. His wounded side throbbed and spasms of pain shot through this body.
But Johann didn’t care about the pain anymore.
He no longer felt so alone. The wind called down to him from the glacial solitude of the mountains and laughing faces peeked out at him from the snow flurries, twisting suddenly into hideous, sneering grimaces.
He felt dizzy. He stopped and breathed deeply.
The dizziness got worse, and Johann slumped forward into the snow. He tried to stand up but couldn’t. It was over. All at once a deep calm came over him, a feeling of security, long forgotten.
Here was a good place to rest.
A high-pitched scream broke through his torpor.
Black eyes, staring down at him; and then another screech.
A big raven had perched on Johann and was now loudly claiming its carrion.
Not yet, bird of death, not yet.
Johann shooed it away and it flew off in protest. He no longer had enough strength to get to his feet.
He turned his head from side to side.
The snow stood out in relief against the impenetrable darkness that by now had engulfed everything. He thought he could make out a thick wood just ahead of him.
The valley must lie beyond that. It wasn’t far now.
He summoned his will, clutched hold of a tree trunk and heaved himself up. Then he stumbled his way through the mass of tangled undergrowth and fallen tree trunks until he had the feeling he was no longer in his body, that he had left it and was watching himself as he lurched and staggered on.
There were faces peering at him from the tree trunks, and they made him uneasy. Friendly enough at first, they soon turned impudent and malicious, until their gloating laughter filled his ears and he thrust his fists up against the sky and cried out in defiant despair.
The exertion was too much for Johann, he felt his blood throbbing in his temples, and then everything went quiet.
He fell to the ground with a thud.
It was the third time he’d fallen since he’d discovered the crucifix in the clearing.
As his eyelids slowly closed, little lights bobbed up in front of him …
He opened his eyes again.
He could see little lights a couple of miles away.
Johann rubbed his eyes−but they were not a figment of his delirious imagination, they were real. A village maybe? Shored up by the chance of rescue, he heaved himself onto all fours and crawled towards the lights.
He was approaching a farmhouse. It was coarsely timbered and built in a style typical of that part of the Alps, with a stone foundation, thick, wooden beams, and a heavy roof truss. There was a square carved in the snow by warm light coming from a side window, and there was smoke spiralling from the chimney.
The sight held the promise of safety and to Johann it looked like heaven on earth.
Clambering up the two steps that led to the front door, he noticed something on the ridge of the roof and strained his eyes to see. It was a carving, a figure of St Leonhard with his hand outstretched towards him, but with his staring eyes and his gaping mouth, his gesture looked cautionary rather than consolatory.
Johann ignored it, and with his legs about to give way, he knocked on the door.
At first everything was quiet, then there was the sound of voices, and blustering footsteps coming towards the front entrance. The door was wrenched open with a violent jolt, and a burly man stood in the doorway.
‘What do you want?’ he barked indignantly.
Johann’s strength finally gave out and he fell backwards down the wooden steps and into the snow.
The man looked at the motionless body. ‘All right, then.’ he muttered scornfully and shut the door again.
Johann’s body didn’t stir. The snow slowly and gently covered him over.
Scraps of muffled conversation could be heard coming from the house. An argument. A woman’s voice asked who was outside and what he wanted, and she talked about ‘Christian brotherly love’ and ‘do unto others’ but the man brushed her remarks aside.
‘What if he’s one of them? I won’t have one of them in my house!’
The argument came to a sudden halt, someone ran up the stairs, and then there was silence.
Johann’s body became one with the white bed of snowflakes on which he lay. The cold crept through his fingertips into his body but he could do nothing. All his strength was gone.
Then the pain of it all turned to warmth, soothing and final.
So be it. Johann closed his eyes.
There was the sound of door hinges creaking.
And hurried steps.
A young woman and an old man were bent over him; the woman was wiping the snow from his face and examining him closely.
Johann sank into unconsciousness.
‘He doesn’t look like one of them,’ whispered the young woman.
‘Can you see any signs on his body?’ asked the old man, sceptical.
The woman examined Johann’s neck, then she opened his coat. Blood from his wound had seeped through his shirt and turned it deep red, almost black.
‘He’s injured, Grandfather.’
The old man looked more closely at Johann, then he made up his mind and nodded. ‘We’d better take him to my house, at least there he can die in warmth.’ He seized Johann by his coat collar.
The young woman hesitated suddenly. ‘What if he’s a protestant?’ She whispered, her words barely audible.
‘Nonsense’, retorted her grandfather ‘and if he is, no one need know about it. Come on, Elisabeth.’
Together they carried the unconscious man along the main street to the other side of the village. There were hardly any lights on in the houses and no one was around. No wonder, on a stormy night like this, thought Elisabeth.
At last, the old man opened the door of a small cottage. There was the sound of barking, and then a sheepdog appeared, almost as long in the tooth as the old man himself. The dog wagged his tail, and sniffed at Johann with curiosity. ‘Quiet, Vitus, quiet!’ said the old man. ‘Let’s put him in the little room upstairs’ he said to Elisabeth, pointing with his head at Johann.
Elisabeth looked at the steep steps that led to the upper wooden balcony and nodded, hesitant. Between them, they dragged Johann up the narrow staircase, being careful not to bang his head on the worn steps.
Finally they made it, and the old man kicked open a door. The little room was sparsely furnished but it had a cosy feel. They heaved Johann onto the bed and took off his boots and wet clothes.
‘Fetch me a basin with water and some clean cloths.’
Elisabeth hurried out. The old man took a penknife out of a leather sheaf on his belt and cut away the encrusted bandage from Johann’s side. The inflammation was very bad and some of the veins surrounding the wound had turned black. The old man looked at the wound with concern.
Elisabeth came in, handed him the basin and cloths and went to the bedside. She gasped when she saw the black veins branching out from the wound. ‘He’s one of them, isn’t he?’ she stammered, horrified. ‘We have to–’
‘Nonsense, dear child. That looks like blood poisoning to me. Fetch me the herbs from downstairs.’
Elisabeth ran downstairs. The old man carefully wiped with wound with the clean, wet cloths. Johann moaned but didn’t regain consciousness.
Elisabeth rushed back into the room and handed her grandfather a tin dish with an assortment of herbs, amongst them camomile and arnica. The old man ground the herbs to a mushy paste and covered the wound with the mixture. He laid a clean cloth on top; the blood immediately seeped through it and it stayed in place. Elisabeth covered Johann up with a thick quilt.
‘There’s not much more we can do for him today,’ said the old man. ‘Make sure you get home before your father loses his temper again.’
‘You mean, more than usual?’ retorted Elisabeth. ‘Thank you, Grandfather’. She crossed herself and gave him a kiss on the cheek, then she hurried out.
The old man fetched a jug of water and set it down on the wooden floor beside the chamber pot. He sat himself down on a chair beside the bed and looked intently at the injured man. Vitus trotted in and settled himself at his master’s feet with a grunt.
The old man lit his pipe and puffed at it thoughtfully.
It had been a long time since a stranger had found his way to the village and it was better that way. New people always brought change with them, for better or for worse. This village was alright as it was, it had its own routine and way of doing things. That suited most people, including his son.
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