In the middle of the night, its strong gusts buffeted the walls of the house, and the branches of the old pine tree drummed on the roof. When Tonya was awakened by the howling wind, she thought it was a freak summer storm and went back to sleep. It was only a few hours later, when she was sleepily making herself a coffee, that she realized the wind hadn’t let up. She screwed up her eyes against the bright light. The sun was shining, just as they had forecast in yesterday’s news. It was to be just as hot as the previous days, but there was no mention of any gales.
Brewing coffee in Granny’s old whistling kettle had become something of a morning ritual during these holidays. Tonya went upstairs and opened the glass door leading out to the terrace. She was met by a strong, warm wind, which blew her red hair around until she looked like Medusa from the Greek myth. It really was shaping up to be another nice day – the sun was high, the air smelled of warmth. She lifted the mug of coffee to her mouth, but it never got there…
She stood frozen with her arm in mid-air. The steam rose from her mug, the wind made her pyjama bottoms billow out, the dew chilled her bare feet, and her brain tried to process the view from the terrace.
Spread out below her should have been a village with red roofs and colourful facades. But something was wrong, and it took her brain a full second to figure out what it was.
The village wasn’t there!
She blinked several times, but the image remained the same. Instead of coloured roofs there was now an endless forest.
She slowly rotated on her axis. Her neighbours’ house was where it should be, and the Milers’ Yorkshire terrier was running around the backyard, but when she turned her gaze to the hillside where the rest of the village should have been, she saw only forest. She leaned over and squinted into the morning haze as though she expected the trees to dissolve like mist and the village to appear.
‘Oh shit,’ she whispered.
She went back into the room and carefully slid the door shut behind her. She sat down at the table and warmed her hands on the mug.
‘Oh shit…’ she repeated quietly.
What was happening to her? Was she going mad? Was it some form of blindness? She had never heard of anything like that. Either you became long-sighted or short-sighted or you lost your sight completely. But seeing something else entirely…?
It must be some kind of psychological breakdown!
She stood up stiffly and began to get dressed. Another quick glance through the glass door: no, nothing had changed, a dense forest instead of red roofs…
She left the house and walked down the sloping road towards the village. Around the bend she should come across the Franks’ grocery store.
She had to!
She stopped. The road suddenly came to an end.
It was badly surfaced and full of potholes; her father had gone to the council many times asking for it to be repaired… What she wouldn’t give for it now! She had walked along it just yesterday evening on her way home and now its lower half was simply missing. She stood at the edge, afraid to leave the road.
‘Oh shit,’ she said for a third time. ‘Shit, shit, shit…’
Girl, you’re starting to repeat yourself. Instead of swearing, why not try to find an explanation.
Cautiously, she knelt down on the broken asphalt and groped around in front of her like a person looking for their glasses. She ran her fingers over the rough surface until she got to the end. It was as though someone had sliced the rest of the road off with a grinder (or whatever that tool road workers use was called) and carried it off somewhere. She knew nothing at all about construction work, but it was clear to her that this was nonsense.
Her fingers left the asphalt and cautiously touched the damp soil. She picked up a handful of the black earth and let it run through her fingers. The wind, which was lighter under the hill, stole the pine needles out of her hand. She stood up again and looked around her. She was close to tears. She expected a TV crew to pop out and a laughing presenter to tell her that she was the victim of a hidden camera prank. She’d laugh through the tears like a madwoman and shake her head at how easily she had been taken in. Of course, it was obvious that this was just a backdrop concealing the village! She’d be a YouTube star…
None of this happened. No TV crew, no fucking presenter! The forest which had supplanted her beloved Rosenberg rustled in the wind, and the tops of the trees bowed in synchronization. Somewhere a cuckoo cooed.
She didn’t want to leave the road. She was afraid it would also mean leaving behind her sanity. Finally, however, she took a step forward and stood on the soft ground.
She had crossed a kind of dividing line stretching into the distance. The road ended in a straight edge that diverged on either side. On one half grew a well-manicured lawn; on the other, wild grass and weeds half-a-metre tall. Then she noticed one of the trees. It was growing on the new side, but it bent in the direction she’d come from. Part of the trunk and branches which crossed this imaginary line in the air were missing. They had been cut off smoothly and she could clearly see the light, fresh wood.
She looked back. She was afraid that the road and her house would disappear with one loud poof! Everything was in its place. She could even see the roof of the house sticking up.
She had to find out what the hell was going on!
With cautious steps, she set out into the forest. The forest was sparse and perhaps young, but it wasn’t any different from all the other forests she had been in. Deciduous trees interspersed with some conifers. Every now and again she’d turn around. The road was still there.
The cuckoo started up again. Tonya looked up to the treetops.
It was also entirely feasible that she was actually walking through the streets of the village. The traffic had stopped, and people were getting out of their cars and staring at her. They were moving out of the way so she wouldn’t bump into them. And she was wandering among them, looking up at the sky like an imbecile.
She could no longer hold back the flood of tears.
‘What’s happening to me?’ she whispered to the silence around her.
She lacked the courage to go any further; she wanted to turn around and run back. She’d have a hot bath and wait for her parents to get back. Mum would know what to do! She always knew what to do!
Then she spotted some ruts worn by wheels among the tree trunks. There should have been a roundabout here. It had still been there yesterday evening… She made her way hesitantly through the trees. A narrow, curving pathway cut through the thickening forest. She was just about to head back when she heard jingling and then squelching steps in the soft ground.
Something told her to hide, but she remained motionless and waited to see what would appear from around the bend. The jingling grew louder. She heard the snorting of an animal.
Then a donkey appeared with a man on its back. When he saw her, his eyes widened.
She moved aside to let the donkey pass. It had its head lowered in resignation and might have bumped into her. It walked past her, and both she and the rider stared dumbly at each other. The man was dressed in coarse, patched-up rags, his hands and face were covered in grime, and fair hair sprouted from beneath his filthy hood. He smelled like a homeless person.
‘Who are you?’ she asked him. The man’s eyebrows shot up and his eyes grew even wider. Then he quickly crossed himself and spurred the unfortunate donkey on with his heels, but it continued along at the same pace.
‘Ho! Ho!’ shouted the man, kicking the donkey in its flanks.
‘Excuse me, but where is Rosenberg?’ she called after him tearfully.
However, the man was already disappearing among the trees, still glancing back at her and urging on his donkey, which simply ignored him.
‘What is happening?!’ she shouted. But she could no longer see him; all she heard was the receding sound of jingling.
If ever there was a time to panic, this was it. She ran back towards the road. The tears streamed down, blinding her, and it was a miracle that she didn’t bump into a tree trunk. She had to get back to safety, no matter what. As she ran up the hill, her lungs were bursting. The Milers’ Goliath welcomed her with joyful barking. She flung open the door and slammed it behind her, slid down to the floor and buried her face in her hands.
As her mother said: Tears are healthy. Men don’t cry, and that’s why they die of heart disease…
She sat by the door and wept like a little girl.
The tears stopped flowing and dried on her wet cheeks. But she remained sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees.
Mum and Dad will be home in the afternoon. I can’t go mad before then! she admonished herself.
Somebody knocked on the door.
She gave a jolt and her heart pounded painfully. With her face pressed to the door, she cautiously slid towards the peephole.
More impatient knocking; she flinched at the noise. On the other side of the door stood Mrs Miler. Tonya cautiously opened up a crack and peered out.
‘Hi, Tonya,’ she greeted her, smiling nervously.
‘Hello. Mum isn’t home…’
The Milers were retired, and Mrs Miler occasionally came over for a natter, happy that someone would listen to her.
‘That doesn’t matter,’ said the old lady with a forced grin. ‘Could I come in for a minute?’
Even though she was like another grandmother to her, Tonya hesitated for a moment. Finally, though, she opened the door and moved aside. Mrs Miler took a quick look around and then gratefully went inside.
‘How are you today, Tonya?’
I slept well, made myself a coffee and then discovered I’d gone mental. Otherwise fine, thank you…
Smiling, Mrs Miler waited for her to reply, then patted Tonya’s hand. ‘Shall we go in the kitchen?’
They sat at the table. The water was still hot, so Tonya made some coffee.
‘Our gas and electricity are out,’ remarked Mrs Miler, trying to make it sound natural. But it didn’t quite come out that way.
Tonya was about to say that their gas was working, but then she realized that the cooker ran off a propane cylinder.
‘Have you been out yet?’ asked Mrs Miler. She said it in an everyday tone of voice, but her eyes were fixed on Tonya, her expression desperately pleading for a quick reply.
Tonya nodded. She didn’t have the courage to speak out loud. She was afraid it would unleash another torrent of tears.
‘That’s OK…that’s OK,’ said Mrs Miler, the corners of her mouth twitching. ‘And is everything all right?’
The girl looked her in the eye. ‘Mrs Miler, is there something you want to tell me?’
The old woman fidgeted and drank some coffee for courage.
‘I went for some rolls this morning. I like them when they’re still warm, though they say you shouldn’t eat them hot…’
‘Mrs Miler,’ Tonya took hold of her shaking hand. ‘Did you buy any rolls?’
That innocent question held such urgency it was as though her life depended on it.
Well, it does! cried a desperate voice in her head.
Mrs Miler stared at her and took her time answering.
Well, Mrs Miler, did you buy those bloody rolls?!
‘Well…I went down the road and… You’ll probably think you’re talking to a senile old granny…’
‘Was there a forest?’ asked Tonya hopefully.
Mrs Miler gulped. ‘Yes, a forest. No grocery store.’
‘No Rosenberg,’ added Tonya.
The two of them looked visibly relieved. Although they had just confirmed that their village, along with all the people they knew, had vanished into thin air, they had also proved to each other that they were sane, which was more important at this point.
‘How is it possible?’
‘I don’t know. Let’s wait until my mum and dad get back…’ Then she was struck by an awful thought. Without a word she ran into the other room. She grabbed her mobile phone and dialled her mother’s number.
Some rapid beeping and then the telephone went silent. She tried it again. There should at least have been a recorded voice telling her the number was unavailable. But there was nothing, as though there was nowhere to get through to.
As though no operators or transmitters existed.
‘Come over to ours and we can try the land line,’ Mrs Miler said from the door.
There were only two houses on the hill above the village, mirror images of each other joined along one wall. One of them used to belong to Tonya’s grandmother.
Tonya always spent her summer holidays there. When her grandmother died, her father decided not to sell the house and instead began to gradually renovate the old building. The family used it as a cottage and a refuge from the searing heat of the housing estate in Budweis. The Milers lived in the other house.
Tonya had been living in student halls for the past two years. She liked the hubbub of Prague with all its cafés and clubs, but she still spent her summer holidays at the cottage. At least for a week or two until the quiet village started to get a little dull. She had a rock festival planned for August, and she’d said she’d go on a beach holiday with her friends from university. Two weeks of sunbathing on a lounger and eyeing up the guys on the beach had sounded like a great prospect. Now her ideas about a festival or warm sand and night-time drinks seemed absurd.
Mrs Miler and Tonya went across the broken tarmac road from one house to the other. Both of them glanced down the hill at the rustling forest. A flock of birds shot out from the treetops; otherwise nothing had changed.
‘Hello, Goliath,’ said Tonya, scratching the dog as it jumped around excitedly. Meanwhile, Mrs Miler unlocked the front door.
‘Oh, yes, you’re so cute, aren’t you…’
Goliath lay on his back, offering up his belly to be rubbed.
A cry came from inside the house. Tonya ran to the entrance. Goliath happily followed her, getting under her feet.
‘Tonya!’ screamed Mrs Miler.
Tonya threw open the door. Mrs Miler was kneeling beside her husband. He lay stretched out on the floor with a pool of blood spreading beneath his head.
‘Tonya, help him!’ implored Mrs Miler.
How am I supposed to help him? she thought to herself in desperation.
‘Don’t just stand there. You’re a doctor after all!’
At that moment there was probably no point explaining that her doctorate was still some years off and that she wasn’t going to be a doctor of medicine, but of classical archaeology! Her grandmother had always talked about her as our doctor…
But she should be able to manage first aid at least! She knelt down beside the old man and tried his pulse. She couldn’t find one. She pulled open his shirt and looked to see if his chest was moving. Mr Miler wasn’t breathing, his heart wasn’t beating.
So how did it go again? She would imagine Mr Miler was the dummy they used during medical training. Otherwise her fragile psychological state might shatter, and Tonya feared that no-one would be able to put it back together again.
She tilted the man’s head back; the oral cavity was clear. Sometimes that was enough for the injured person to start breathing, but not in this case. She felt for the breast bone and placed her hand at the end of it – that was where she would push. She put one hand on top of the other, raised herself up on straightened arms and began the massage.
She tried to pump in a regular rhythm. One compression per second. Just like the instructor had taught her. Mouth-to-mouth was now seen as outdated; there was more oxygen in the blood that was being pumped around…
Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-one, she kept repeating her magical mantra to maintain a steady rhythm.
She worked without a break. Her arms and shoulders were on fire.
Mrs Miler stood by the window.
Someone should really have taken over from her, but there was no-one here. She could hardly expect Mrs Miler to…
Then she felt a light touch on her shoulder.
‘My dear, let him be.’
‘But you don’t understand, Mrs Miler,’ she replied breathlessly. ‘This can take several minutes.’
‘You’ve been doing it for half an hour…’
That’s impossible. Shaking, she sat down beside the cooling body.
Mrs Miler sat beside her. The two women embraced. The old woman was trembling as she silently wept. Tonya clasped her even more tightly.
‘He’d already had two heart attacks…’ whispered the old woman between sobs, stroking her husband’s chest.
Mr Miler had obviously got up, gone to the window and discovered that the village where he had spent his whole life had packed up and gone somewhere, and his heart hadn’t been able to take it.
‘It’s my fault,’ said Mrs Miler miserably. ‘I’m so stupid, if only I’d waited until he woke up. As it was, he might have thought I’d disappeared as well…’
Tonya stroked her hair and thought about her parents. For the first time, she realized with horror that they might never get here.
The whole day passed without any sign of Mum and Dad.
Twenty-four hours of nothing. The telephones were dead. The electricity wasn’t working – no internet, no cable TV. Out of the entire village there were only two houses left, huddled together fearfully on the hill with the dark forest sprawling below them. Night fell stealthily, and Tonya was afraid to leave the house. Mrs Miler was back in her own home, alone with her dead husband.
Tonya didn’t sleep much. With the first rays of morning light came a soft knocking on the door. At that moment, Tonya realized she’d have to do something, otherwise she’d go mad.
‘Could you help me, love?’ The old woman was sweating and covered in dirt.
Her husband lay in the hallway of the house, wrapped in a white sheet bound together with duct tape. Mrs Miler apologized for not having managed it in a more dignified manner. There was a shallow grave in the garden which she had been digging since morning.
Tonya blushed with shame. She had been cowering in her house like a hamster, watching through the window for salvation to appear, while this old woman had been left to dig a grave for her husband all by herself.
She began to apologize hysterically. Mrs Miler just stroked her cheek. ‘It’s all right, dear. If you could just help me get him outside. I can’t manage it by myself.’
Tonya would never have believed that a dead body could be so heavy. She dragged her deceased neighbour by the legs, his head making a dull thud every time they went through a doorway. Tonya apologized each time, as though it could still hurt the old man. Fortunately, there were no stairs to contend with.
By the time she got him out to the open grave in the garden, her vest top was soaked through with sweat. Together they rolled the body into the hole. Tonya had to break up a nearby rockery to build a small mound on Mr Miler’s grave.
Mrs Miler crossed herself and knelt by the fresh grave, her headscarf fluttering in the gusts of wind.
Tonya felt out of place and suddenly didn’t know what to do with her hands. She had never been religious, and now she was unsure whether she should also kneel out of politeness, or just quietly stand there.
‘That’s fine, Tonya, thank you,’ said Mrs Miler, as though reading her thoughts. ‘I’ll just say goodbye to him and then I’ll come over to your place, OK?’
‘We have to find out what’s going on. Otherwise we’ll be waiting like this till Judgment Day,’ said Mrs Miler as they drank coffee on the veranda with its breathtaking new view of the unknown forest.
‘But how? I’m afraid to go into the forest,’ said Tonya quietly, remembering the strange man on the donkey.
‘You can drive a car, can’t you?’
This sentence struck fear into Tonya.
It would have done so under normal circumstances, let alone now when the world had gone to pot.
‘I saw you out driving with your dad a few times.’
‘Yes, but I’ve never driven alone,’ protested Tonya. She’d had her driving licence for about six months, but was convinced she should have used the money for something completely different.
‘You said there was a path in the forest…’
‘Well, there is, but I doubt you could get a car along it. And anyway, my mum and dad have the car,’ she said with a sigh of relief.
‘We can take our Peugeot,’ said Mrs Miler, smiling.
She cannot be serious!
But she was, and she even declared sweetly that if Tonya didn’t want to do it, she wouldn’t force her. But she had to find out what was going on. So she would go to the forest alone – on foot.
She was stubborn as a mule!
Tonya immediately scolded herself for thinking such a thing.
‘We’ll leave at once. There’s no sense in putting it off. I’ll just make us up a snack,’ said Mrs Miler.
Does she think we’re going on a picnic?!
It was shortly after eight, and Tonya was adjusting the rear-view mirror in the tiny old Peugeot. And then the seat. And then just one trifling matter – how to start it.
She turned the key in the ignition…and nothing happened.
What a pity, it won’t start, she thought jubilantly.
She tried it once again just to be sure. Nothing.
‘You have to let it heat up for a moment, it’s a diesel,’ explained Mrs Miler, with a special emphasis on the last word.
‘And how do you do that?’
‘That little spiral has to light up,’ said Mrs Miler, pointing. She had picked up at least that much from her husband.
Tonya turned the key again and noticed an orange spiral on the dashboard. She let it stay lit for a while, then turned the key the rest of the way, and the engine coughed out a cloud of dark smoke. She stepped on the accelerator and released the clutch too quickly. The Peugeot gave two wild leaps and then fell silent.
‘For crying out…’ said Tonya under her breath. Mrs Miler stroked her hand. Her smile was a source of calm. It always had been.
She went through the whole process again. The needle on the fuel gauge was in the red zone. She would be running on the reserve and would have to keep an eye on it. This time she was gentler with the clutch and the car went slowly along the bumpy road and down the hill. Tonya braked, gripping the steering wheel tightly.
Just relax. There’s nothing to crash into anyway.
The Peugeot left the paved road and drove onto the soft ground. There was plenty of space between the tree trunks, and the pine needles on the ground prevented the wheels from getting stuck. Tonya wouldn’t have minded if they had. Only once did she have to double back to drive around some bushes (it took her ages to work out how to reverse).
Finally, they reached the path. Twice the car swayed as they went over the ruts. The two women looked at each other for reassurance that this was really what they wanted to do. Then Tonya put her foot down and the Peugeot waddled its way along the forest path.
The fuel light glowed like a hostile red eye. The Peugeot jolted and rocked. The trunks grew thicker and the treetops formed a sealed canopy above them, as though they were driving into a tapering green tunnel. It was slowly becoming a primeval forest and branches brushed against the side windows like hungry arms.
..you’ve got some imagination!
Tonya felt like Little Red Riding Hood, but with a small French car instead of a hood.
‘Mrs Miler, we’re going to have to turn around.’
Actually, that’s not about to happen – more likely we’ll have to reverse for five kilometres.
The old woman was glued to the windscreen, trying to make out something between the trees.
‘Doesn’t that part of the forest seem a bit brighter to you?’
Tonya turned her gaze in the direction she was indicating. It really did look as if there was light shining through the trees. She glanced at the warning light again – perhaps she could get another kilometre out of it. She put her foot down on the accelerator and the small wheels skidded in the mud, throwing a clump of grass into the air.
The Peugeot jolted its way to the edge of the forest – there was no longer any doubt about it. They finally drove out from the shade of the trees and the sun’s rays hit the windscreen. Tonya was momentarily dazzled, but when her eyes had adjusted she slammed on the brakes, causing the locked wheels to skid slightly along the grass.
The two women stared dumbfounded. The people who were standing in the clearing stared at them.
Tonya blinked wildly and finally took in a lungful of air.
“Who in God’s name are they?’ whispered Mrs Miler.
There were several hovels in the clearing. All that could be seen above ground was some straw roofs, so they were probably dugouts. To the side of the settlement there was some kind of smoking mound – that was how they used to burn charcoal in the olden days. Around two dozen people were gaping at them open-mouthed. All of them were equally grey, grubby and dressed in coarse rags.
‘We’re in hell,’ whispered Mrs Miler, crossing herself.
‘No, we’re not…’ Tonya reached for the handle and opened the door. The wind, which had lost none of its strength since yesterday, snatched it out of her hand. It was as if she had shot at the people standing there. Half of them took to their heels and scattered; the other half flinched, but their curiosity prevailed over their survival instincts.
Tonya got out of the car.
A woman screamed and fell backwards. One man, wearing a coarse black cowl belted at the waist with a rope, fell to his knees and began to pray. The rest of the occupants began to run after the others.
‘Wait!’ Her voice, amplified by an echo, was like the crack of a whip – they all speeded up. Even the man in the cowl, who obviously did not set great store by his prayers, dashed off after his neighbours.
The only one left was the unconscious woman. Tonya went over to her. She felt for a pulse. It was strong and regular. She was breathing. Tonya was relieved she wouldn’t have to give her the kiss of life. Her skin was greasy, as though she had never washed. This theory was corroborated by the stench emanating from her dirty rags.
Instead of first aid, Tonya gave her a slap. The woman blinked and opened her eyes wide. Tonya smiled. The woman began shrieking and tried to stand up, only to get tangled in her own skirts and end up sprawling in the mud.
‘Wait, who are you? What are you doing here? Do you understand me?’
The woman won the battle with her clothing and ran off in the direction the others had fled in. Tonya shaded her eyes. ‘That’s impossible,’ she whispered.
Mrs Miler came and stood beside her. ‘Is that what I think it is?’
Tonya looked around, trying to get her bearings. That seemed to be right. In this area there used to be a sparse forest where she often went for walks. In front of her was a small hill with a romantic ruin on it: a couple of perimeter walls made of large boulders and one wall of a watch tower. A nice place.
The hill was still there, but in place of the ruined walls there was a massive fortress and the tower soared to its full height. Several grey plumes of smoke rose from the fortress into the sky. The villagers who had fled from them were now crowded together at the wooden gate, trying to gain entry. Then the gate opened.
‘I don’t like the look of this…’
Mrs Miler started to explore the huts. ‘Hello! Is anyone home?’
They should probably get out of there. Either they had travelled back to the Middle Ages, or the Middle Ages had come to them. In any case, they shouldn’t stay there.
Her neighbour, however, had already disappeared into one of the hovels. Tonya suddenly felt like a character in some stupid horror film. The viewers shake their heads at her foolishness, telling her on no account to go into any dark places. But of course, against her better judgment, that is exactly what she does.
She squeezed through the narrow doorway. ‘What are you doing here? We should get back,’ she hissed.
‘How can they live like this?’ wondered Mrs Miler, looking around at the dark, smoky room with packed earth for a floor.
‘Do you think it’s some kind of a camp?’
Tonya looked at her in dismay. Mrs Miler didn’t notice though, and continued to inspect the dugout. Had she lost touch with reality? Could it be due to the shock of losing her beloved husband and of the situation they now found themselves in?
I mean, there was a bloody medieval fortress over there which was only supposed to be a romantic ruin!
The building defied common sense, but it was real, with real medieval people in it… The Middle Ages weren’t exactly Tonya’s specialist subject, but she knew very well that a girl in tight hip-hugging jeans with a vest that accentuated her bust would not exactly have it easy. She tactically swept aside the question of how they had actually got there.
‘Let’s go! We have to go back,’ she said dragging her neighbour to the exit.
‘Tonya, where are we?’
The girl no longer paid any attention to her, and concentrated all her energy on getting her to the Peugeot. Fortunately, Mrs Miler didn’t put up any resistance.
Then came the sound of horses’ hooves. They both turned around. A group of riders was approaching from the fortress.
Mrs Miler, however, was fascinated by this scene and did what she should never have done – she dug her heels in.
‘Come on!’ whimpered Tonya.
The riders were quickly approaching. Could a horse really run that fast? They were just a few metres away. They pulled on the reins and the horses reared up. The six men on horseback eyed the girl and the old woman warily. Tonya tried to discreetly move backwards towards the car, pulling Mrs Miler by the elbow.
One of the men shouted something.
Then he repeated it. They began to talk animatedly among themselves. The language reminded her of Russian.
She looked behind her – they only had a few metres to go.
‘Who are you?’ asked Mrs Miler, attracting their undivided attention. One of the riders dismounted. He was wearing a coarse shirt, but he had a strong leather belt with a sword in a sheath.
Mrs Miler finally broke free of Tonya’s grasp. ‘Who are you?’ she asked once more. The man walked towards her, and the old woman raised her hands with open palms in a universal gesture of peace.
The men began to argue again. The one who had dismounted (he was still a boy) came within reach of the old woman. One of the other riders yelled something at him; another shouted down the first and yelled some suggestion of his own at the young man.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Mrs Miler gently, making as if to touch the boy’s face.
An older rider, who obviously did not like this, jumped nimbly down, pulled out his long sword and ran it through Mrs Miler.
She didn’t even cry out.
Tonya gazed in fascination at the red tip sticking out of her back. The rider withdrew the sword and the old woman dropped lifeless to the ground.
Tonya made a run for the car. She could hear hoof beats and clamouring behind her. She didn’t dare look back.
Only two metres to go…
She wound her way round the door and sank into the car, banging the door shut behind her. The riders stopped and stared at her wide-eyed through the glass. The one who had followed her on foot leaned over to get a look inside. Then he plucked up the courage to try to touch Tonya through the side window. His fingers hit the glass. It was obviously his first encounter with glass because he jumped back with a cry as if he had received an electric shock.
She quickly turned the key.
Nothing happened. She tried it again – nothing. Tears of desperation began to flow. She kept turning the key, but the engine just quietly clicked.
The man noticed her tears and all at once everything became clear to him. The creature was crying out of fear, which meant she was afraid of him. And that meant he could defeat her. He raised his sword and swung it at the roof of the Peugeot. He shouted something to his companions, who also dismounted with swords drawn.
START, FOR FUCK’S SAKE!
Nothing happened. Then it dawned on her. It was like an old cartoon where a light bulb appeared above the character’s head.
With shaking hands, she turned the key only halfway in the ignition – the spiral lit up.
The men stood around the car, beating it with their swords. The windscreen cracked. The bonnet was caving in beneath their blows.
Then the side window shattered. A hand reached inside and grabbed her by the vest top.
She completed the half-circle and the engine started. The man leapt back.
Tonya pressed the horn.
They began to flee, throwing away their swords and covering their ears.
‘How do you like THIS, you PIECES OF SHIT?!’ she screamed along with the horn, putting the car into first. The Peugeot jumped and lurched forwards. Right in front of the car was the man who had stabbed poor Mrs Miler. Tonya had time to swerve, but she didn’t. The man flew across the bonnet and hit the windscreen, which cracked even more.
Tonya realized she was still shouting obscenities that she hadn’t even realized she knew. She turned the car around in an arc, breaking through an enclosure with some bleating goats, and headed back into the forest.
She just hoped she had enough diesel to get her home.
The diesel ran out two hundred metres from the edge of the forest.
The car coughed, shuddered twice and then fell silent for good. Tonya sat petrified behind the wheel, staring through the cracks that covered the entire windscreen.
She opened the door and the hinges creaked. The noise seemed indecently loud to her. She listened to the sounds of the forest – only the rustling of the treetops and the cracking of trunks bent by the wind. Was it just her imagination or had the wind grown even stronger? She looked back at the road.
No thundering of hooves. At least not yet…
How long would it take the riders to recover and start to pursue her? How long would it be before they caught up with her? She had no idea what kind of stamina these horses had, but it was clear that the men would soon be here – and incredibly pissed off. Then she noticed the scratches and dents from the swords.
From real fucking medieval swords!
From swords that kill people!
She started to run. She left the forest behind and ran up the road to her house.
From the neighbouring yard, Goliath barked happily to see her. Tonya ran upstairs, pulled out a large rucksack and began to stuff it with whatever seemed essential: the contents of the first-aid kit, a warm jumper…
She cast an anxious glance through the window to the street. Everything was still quiet.
Her iPhone – just in case. Matches!
She paced around the hall frantically, trying to get her overwrought brain to co-operate. What else might she need?
Another quick glance out of the window.
Then she remembered something, ran upstairs again and threw on her waterproof nylon jacket.
She slipped on the comfortable Adidas trainers she went out running in.
I hope that’s everything…
She stopped once more in the doorway, went back into the kitchen, and wrote a note on the fridge:
The Milers are dead. I’m OK. I can’t wait for you, I’ve gone to Slatina for help.
If I can’t find it, I’ll come back home.
I love you, Tonya.
She thought for a moment and then added:
PS: There are dangerous people with swords in the forest.
Under no circumstances go in there!!!!!
The last line sounded completely insane. Either she had gone mad and needed help, or the whole world had gone mad and needed help twice as badly.
Cautiously, she walked out into the silent street. She strained her ears in the direction of the forest, scarcely breathing. Then she heard a whimpering and scraping on the metal gate.
‘Goliath, I can’t take you with me.’
The little dog pricked up its ears and cocked its head thoughtfully. Then it barked – it obviously had the opposite idea. She couldn’t just leave him here to die of hunger. She used to take him for walks for the Milers; in fact, she was the only one he’d obey even a little.
She opened the gate and the dog ran out and began to jump up at her happily in anticipation of a nice walk.
You’re gonna get one hell of a walk, boy.
She ran behind the house and into the field. To the north was some kind of twisted version of Narnia. She hoped that to the south she would still find the familiar 21st century. It was just a four-kilometre run across the fields to the village of Slatina.
Or she would end up running all the way to Budweis.
She began running, Goliath up ahead of her, filled with the joys at such a brisk outing.
Very slowly, with an epicurean expression, Lucius Baro lowered himself into the hot bath. Clouds of steam rose from the water and goose bumps covered his body. Finally, he reached the lined bottom of the tub and sighed with relief.
The tent billowed as the wind buffeted its sides, causing him to feel drowsy.
‘Dominus?’ came a voice from behind a curtain.
Of course, this is just what he’d expected…
‘What is it?’ he growled quietly.
‘Apologies, Dominus, but Tribune Arius wishes to speak with you. He says it’s very urgent.’
It was not his slave Falco’s fault that the fop Arius had chosen this inopportune moment. But he had no intention of getting out of the hot water he had been deprived of for days on his account.
‘Let him enter,’ he said somewhat more gently.
Falco hesitated for a moment, as though wishing to make sure Lucius really did want to receive someone as he lay in his bath. However, he did not find the courage to ask him, and so he quietly withdrew.
Before pulling back the screen, Arius coughed politely.
‘Greetings, Lucius,’ he said stiffly.
Lucius felt as though the water was slowly saturating him, so he merely raised his arm wearily. Although the young patrician was from one of the most ancient families in Rome, he treated the primipilus with due respect, as everyone in the legion did.
‘So, what brings you here?’
Under normal circumstances, Arius would have been somewhat put out that a plebeian, who only by the grace of Fortuna had worked his way up from a simple legionary to the third most powerful man in the legion, should speak to him as an equal. His discomfiture was now intensified by the fact that he had received him stark naked. At least, that was how Lucius explained the young man’s wide-eyed stare.
‘We have a problem,’ said Arius, his eyes flitting around the tent.
Lucius, secretly amused by the young patrician’s embarrassment, asked what kind of problem.
Arius’s gaze finally alighted on a bowl of warm wine, and without permission he filled himself a goblet using a ladle. The gods knew, he needed it.
‘It seems that the Third and Fifteenth have disappeared.’
‘What?’ asked Lucius in a stupor.
What is this boy gibbering about?
Arius knocked back a second goblet. ‘Both legions are gone.’
‘What do you mean, gone? The emperor withdrew them without telling us?’
‘They weren’t withdrawn, Lucius. They’ve disappeared!’ he said, trying desperately to suppress the panic that was rising in his voice.
Lucius felt his heart beginning to pump and his thoughts clearing like the sky after a heavy downpour.
‘If this is some kind of joke and I’m getting out for nothing…’ That simple sentence would have been enough to make an ordinary legionary fill his loincloth. Even Arius, whose father was a close friend of the emperor’s, was slightly unnerved.
‘It’s like this: yesterday my father went to the emperor’s camp for dinner, along with most of the officers, and he should have returned this morning, only he didn’t…’ The tribune’s voice almost cracked.
‘Well, so what? And from that you deduce that entire legions have disappeared?’ Lucius was fully alert now and fixed the young man with an angry stare.
‘Since daybreak there was fog in the valley, so we couldn’t see to the other side. When the sun came out, a strong wind got up and dispersed the fog…and the emperor’s camp on the opposite hill simply wasn’t there!’
Lucius stood up, splashing water all around him. Steam rose from his body.
‘What do you mean, it wasn’t there? It’s completely empty?’ he hurriedly dried himself with a cloth and tried to pull a tunic over his scalded skin.
‘No! It’s not there at all!’
Lucius stood gawking at the tribune through the opening for the head.
‘There’s no ditch, palisade, towers…there isn’t a fucking thing!’ snapped Arius. ‘It’s as though the whole camp vanished into thin air during the night.’
Lucius left the tent with Arius close on his heels. A strong wind blew grains of dust into his eyes. There was a commotion throughout the camp, with soldiers converging on the northern palisade, the bulk of which was already occupied by their comrades. Even the injured with bandaged limbs hobbled from the hospital tents to witness this phenomenon.
Lucius, now in full armour, strode towards the palisade, tightening the chinstrap of his helmet.
As soon as the legionaries saw him, they got out of the way. Lucius tramped up the wooden steps leading to the rampart, angrily forging a way through the crowd.
‘What’s going on here?!’ he bellowed, and everyone fell silent. ‘Who is in command of the guard?’
‘I am, sir,’ said an elderly centurion, stepping forward hurriedly.
‘What is this mayhem, centurion?’
The officer was silent and stared at a point above the primipilus, praying to himself.
‘This will cost you a month’s pay, and if you don’t clear out this palisade immediately, you’ll be stripped of your rank and given 20 lashes as well!’
‘Yes, sir!’ said the centurion, raising his right arm in a salute, and his men who were on guard duty began shouting at everyone to get out.
Lucius finally looked over to the hill opposite. The camp had indeed disappeared, including the ditch and the palisade. Nearly twelve thousand men had been camped there last night, and now there wasn’t a trace of them. There weren’t even any ruts or trampled grass leading from the site. Nothing at all.
‘Have you sent scouts there?’ he asked Arius.
‘They should return any moment now.’
What was it about this picture that didn’t seem right to him? And then it hit him with the force of a Quadi hammer. In the place where the camp should have been, there were several trees. Normally, they would have been used for building the palisade or for firewood, but they definitely wouldn’t have survived the night. Moreover, Lucius was almost certain there had been no trees there yesterday.
‘Riders!’ shouted the guards. Several scouts were riding down from the hillside. ‘Proclaim a state of battle readiness and have the rest of the officers wait in the tent,’ said Lucius.
Without a word, Arius ran off, his eyes almost popping out of his head, to give the order to the other tribunes.
The gate creaked, and the horses entered the camp at a full gallop. The decurion in charge of the scouting party leapt down from his still-moving horse and rushed over to Lucius.
He stopped in front of him and saluted. Lucius cut him short; he didn’t want him speaking in front of the men. ‘My tent,’ he ordered.
The soldiers were already running out of their tents, lining up in the forum and taking up positions on the palisade in case of an imminent attack. The rest of the tribunes were gathered in the command tent. Lucius had joined the legion before any of these sons of senatorial or equestrian rank were even born. Heads turned towards him.
On the march or in battle they could relay orders to him from the legate, or in theory they could even issue their own (though in practice no-one would dare). However, once the legion had made camp, Lucius became the camp prefect – the highest-ranking officer in the legion after the legate and the senior tribune. In the event of their death or in an emergency, he would take over command. And as the legate and the senior tribune had gone over to dine at the emperor’s camp the previous evening and had apparently vanished overnight (which might not be a confirmed death, but, my friends, it was most certainly an emergency), in practical terms he now commanded the entire Second Legion Italica. Lucius hoped he wouldn’t have to explain this to the puffed-up patricians.
He stopped at the entrance and for an instant he was struck by the full weight of the moment.
‘So, what news do you bring, decurion?’
‘Sir, it looks as though the camp had never been there. The lie of the land is slightly different and there are trees that definitely weren’t there yesterday. And I’m talking about sturdy old oaks… We searched for a good ten miles in all directions, but there was no sign of the two legions or the emperor. And the river in the valley has dried up as though someone had dammed the flow.’
The men eyed each other nervously.
‘Sorcery,’ someone whispered.
Lucius banged his fist on the table, causing a goblet of water to overturn. ‘If anyone else utters that word, I will personally beat them to death,’ he growled. ‘There will be whispers among the men to that effect, and you as officers will refute this and make light of it. Is that clear?’
It was clear.
‘We have to move, we can’t stay here. Ready the legion to march.’
The pain was almost beyond belief.
Obersturmbannführer Hermann Kurtz would never have thought it possible to feel something like this. The right side of his face was a cinder. His hand had also been burned as he tried to put out the burning petrol on his face. With his remaining eye he looked at the hem of the sleeve burnt into his flesh. The uniform had finally become part of his body!
He laughed wildly at this metaphor incarnate.
Immediately, though, he howled with pain.
He couldn’t see out of his left eye. He didn’t have the courage to touch what was left. He could only feel a kind of tautness; the left side of his face was shrivelling up like a dead fish in the sun, sending an unending geyser of pain into his brain.
He swayed in the turret of his tank. The Tiger rumbled along the street. He jerked round and looked into the barrel of the smaller Panther that was following close behind. The remains of infantrymen were hanging from it like old sausages in a butcher’s shop window. He turned back round with difficulty.
Another Italian backstreet that would be too narrow. The sides of the Tiger started to dig into the walls of houses, and bricks showered the front of the tank. The engine revved and the Tiger lurched forward, tearing off a large chunk of wall.
Kurtz tried in vain to protect his burns from the dust.
They left the town and drove into a field. He automatically looked up. There were no Allied planes to be seen. For two days now, he hadn’t sighted a single enemy aircraft. Or a German one, for that matter.
‘Hoffmann, the radio?!’
From the red-hot turret of the tank Hoffmann shook his head – still no connection. The radio had gone silent two days ago, roughly at the same time as the planes stopped attacking.
Not for the first time, Kurtz wondered whether the war had ended and no-one had bothered to inform them.
It would have been a shame, now that he was really starting to enjoy it.
Once again, he laughed maniacally and then howled with pain.
Why was the fighter plane leaving them alone? It had been doing so well – of the five tanks in his company, three had been destroyed. Two-thirds of his men had fallen. Kurtz had also prepared himself for a hero’s death for the Führer and the Fatherland. But instead of finishing him off, that American swine had left him deformed like a monster from one of their stupid films!
Good God, the PAIN!
He poured water from his canteen onto his burnt face. He poured it all on, so now he had nothing left to drink. It didn’t matter, he wouldn’t be able to survive this anyway.
The engines roared, and the wind blew the hot dust of the Italian countryside into his tortured face. He spotted several whirlwinds. If only the damn sun wasn’t blazing so fiercely!
They were just a few kilometres from their destination, the only logical place they could retreat to. The base, with its supplies of fuel and munitions, was well hidden from eyes from the air. No doubt it would already be empty, deserted, but Kurtz hoped to meet at least someone from the remains of the brigade.
In the distance he spotted some figures trying to clear out of the way – some kind of degenerate Italian family. They dropped their bundles of wood and ran off like hares. Just like that ridiculous army of theirs!
Kurtz released the safety catch of the machine gun mounted on the turret. Without being aware of it, he chuckled quietly.
He had never trusted those Italian rats.
I’ll give you escape…
The machine gun thundered, and the fleeing figures bit the dust.
They were dead, but Kurtz didn’t let go of the trigger. There was something poetic about the clouds of dust the bullets sent up as they landed.
When the belt of ammunition ran out, he lovingly stroked the warm metal body of the MG34. Even if the war were to end or the world were to relapse into primitive times, he and what was left of his men would continue to fight.
And they would kill whatever stood in their way.
Tonya covered the four kilometres separating the rest of Rosenberg from the small village of Slatina in record time. She ran across the field, her trainers coated in mud, constantly looking around and expecting medieval horsemen with drawn swords to appear behind her at any moment.
When she finally reached the first houses, her face was spattered with mud and she was puffing like a locomotive. Goliath, his fur clumped together into brown dreadlocks, was happily capering about and sniffing every corner. Every now and then he would glance up at Tonya as if to say: that was a hell of a trip!
It certainly was.
Exhausted, she leaned against the corner of a building and looked around to see if anyone was following her.
No sign of the riders. Perhaps she had finally got to a place where someone would tell her what had actually happened. It was as if she had gone back to her childhood; she felt like a little girl who’d lost her mother in the supermarket.
She crossed the road. Slatina consisted of a single street with a grocery store and a pub on the eastern side and a dozen houses on the western side, where two cul-de-sacs connected up to the main street at right angles. Slatina was a sleepy village that made Rosenberg look like Hong Kong, but even here they should be aware by now that the rest of the world had gone mad.
She walked along the desolate, empty main street, and the wind gusted, blowing specks of dust into her eyes. From time to time it ceased and for an instant there was near-perfect calm, and then a new gust blew, almost knocking her over. She looked at Goliath – the dog was bravely battling against it.
It was a weekday afternoon – there should have been cars driving past, taking people home from work, or at least a tractor or something.
Ahead of her, she spotted the back of a bus. It was standing at an angle by the side of the road, the engine switched off. She slowly walked up to it, filled with a sense of foreboding. She glanced back at the dog. He was strutting along the pavement with supreme confidence anteing on the wall, happy with his new territory.
Even before she reached the back of the bus, she noticed the road. That is, the end of it.
It had been cut off cleanly in a straight-line.
Where the asphalt ended, a meadow began. Tonya stood at the edge and looked around, just as she had stood at the end of the road leading from her parents’ house two days earlier. It wasn’t just the road that had disappeared, but part of Slatina too. The fault line–that was the expression that seemed most apt to Tonya – stretched diagonally across the village. As she walked down the street, she saw the front facades of the houses. Now that she looked back, she noticed that the facades were actually all that was left of them. The rear halves of the houses, along with the gardens, had disappeared in a neat straight line. In their place there was grass, bushes and a few stunted trees.
The bus – or what was left of it – stood beyond the smooth edge of the road, as if it had ended up in the tall grass through sheer momentum. She walked around the part that remained – the front half was missing. Tonya stood roughly where the front wheel should have been and peered inside. The rear part of the bus was empty.
It reminded her of the technical museum in Prague; vehicles neatly cross-sectioned so that visitors could examine not only the interior but also the entire structure of the vehicle. Bodywork, chassis, roof – everything was smoothly levelled off. None of the jagged edges you’d get in a car crash. The cross section even went through the seats, revealing the yellow foam.
Tonya’s head began to spin. She had to squat down so as not to collapse in the grass.
Goliath ran up and started licking her hand.
Everything around her was so unreal!
She focused on the dog. His rough, wet tongue might help her to hold on to her sanity. She scratched him behind the ears – the warm fur of a living dog.
“Perhaps we’re the last living beings in the world, „she told him. He cocked his head as if considering this.
No, not the last. She remembered the men with the swords. It would soon be dark; she should find a place to hide.
With rapid steps, she headed back along the road. The setting sun shone through some of the windows as there were no walls behind them to block the rays.
Tonya slowed down to a complete stop. She was standing in the deserted road. Slatina seemed to her like the set of a Western town. The silence that surrounded her was eerie. She should hear the usual noise of cars hurtling past on the nearby motorway. Someone should be cutting wood on a circular saw. Dogs should be barking – after all, she was in a village, dammit!
Nothing –just birds singing and Goliath’s curious gaze – as if he were asking: So, what are you going to do now?
“If only I knew…” Excellent, she was beginning to talk to a dog!
Then she remembered something. She had a classmate from primary school in Slatina. Petra lived at the end of the village, and during the holidays they had become quite friendly. To reach her parents’ house, she had to go down one of the cul-de-sacs off the main street.
The fault line –
I should have that phrase patented.
– transected the main street at an acute angle, passing through Slatina diagonally, so it didn’t affect all the houses in the same way. Those closest to the bisected bus barely had their facades intact. Those furthest from it – in the direction Tonya had come from – were almost complete, with only the back rooms or a corner missing. And that was the case with Petra’s house.
Tonya pressed the doorbell – not that she expected it to work…
Great, Inspector Clouseau, what now?
She walked around the house. The fence came to an end in the middle. She entered the garden and peered into the interior through a hole which had not been visible from the street.
“Hello, is anyone home?”she hollered. The only sound was the rustling of the wallpaper – it was fluttering slightly at the site of the cut.
Tonya went right up to the hole.
Again, that association with the technical museum: the cross section of the house revealing the concrete foundations, parquet flooring, insulation, the structure of the walls…
She swung herself into the room. “Hello?” she said, attempting a cheerful tone. She had adopted an apologetic expression: Your doorbell isn’t working, so I climbed in through a hole in the wall, I hope you don’t mind…
Goliath whined; he wanted to come too.
“Stay!”she whispered urgently. She walked across the room and opened the door to the hallway.
What would she say if somebody caught her in the act?
Sorry, but Rosenberg has disappeared, Mr Miler had a heart attack and Mrs Miler was stabbed by a knight... Do you have a phone?
The hall was empty. She examined the other rooms – nothing there either. That just left the kitchen. The setting sun was shining through the glass door. She opened it. The back wall was missing. There was a single chair in the middle of the kitchen, and sitting on it with his back to Tonya was a man.
She was paralyzed with terror. As if in a dream, she stepped towards the figure, even though she knew it wasn’t a good idea. She couldn’t help herself. The chair stood precisely on the edge where the house had been cut off. The man was sitting with his chin resting on his chest, staring into space. Both of the wrists on his dangling arms and his legs above the knees were missing. Beneath the chair gleamed a huge pool of congealed blood, which had trickled down the bare bricks. On the grass below, half of the dining table lay upside-down where it had fallen.
When the time quake had occurred, Petra’s dad had been sitting at the table. Perhaps he had been watching television and decided to make a night-time raid on the fridge. But he had been sitting right on the fault line, and when everything disappeared, his arms and legs had disappeared too.
Tonya backed up towards the door in horror and fumbled blindly for the key. She still couldn’t tear her eyes away from that pool, which gleamed like an oil spill in the setting sun.
She flung open the door, ran across the hallway and jumped out of the room she’d entered the house through. She fled from that horror, pursued by a barking Goliath. She dropped to all fours and threw up the meagre contents of her stomach.
With tear-filled eyes, she looked around above the blades of grass rippling in the wind.
What was she going to do?
It seemed that all that was left out of the whole of Slatina was a few external walls and the grocery store and pub across the road. And all its inhabitants had had the misfortune to be on the other side of the line and had fallen through somewhere.
There were several horses trotting on the horizon. The riders were looking around cautiously and slowly coming in her direction.
Exhausted, Tonya watched them. It took her a moment to realize that she should be afraid of them. Her body was flooded with a new wave of adrenaline brought on by the terror.
If she remained on all fours, she wouldn’t be visible through the grass.
On her knees, she slowly shuffled back towards what remained of the houses –there was nothing else she could do. Beside Petra’s house she grabbed the rucksack she had left there and crawled on. She wasn’t going to set foot in that house again! The next house in the row had an even bigger part uncovered. She lifted the dog into the bisected living room, threw the rucksack in and finally swung herself across the edge. She was out of the riders’ line of sight. She moved along the wall into the house. It was empty.
At least there weren’t any of the owners’ body parts here. She curled up in the kitchen, whose windows faced the main street.
A few moments later, it rang with the sound of hoof beats. They were getting closer. Slow and regular.
She clutched Goliath to her breast, scarcely breathing. Through the curtains on the window she could see the watchful silhouettes of the riders.
Goliath started to growl, his chest trembling.
“Shh, please, baby, shh…” she whispered in his ear.
If he couldn’t contain himself and let out a bark, she was a goner.
“Calm down, there’s a good dog…”
The riders passed by the house and continued along the street. However, it came to an end by the bisected bus, so they would be coming back. She prayed they wouldn’t decide to search the houses.
The dog trembled and now and then let out a bark. The hoof beats were returning. She whispered in his ear and scratched him behind the ear. Tears were running down her cheeks; Goliath noticed it and began to lick them.
The riders stopped right outside the house and conferred.
Of course, what else would you expect!
She couldn’t see their faces, but they seemed to be the ones from the forest. Even their lilting speech, vaguely reminiscent of Russian, was the same.
Then one of them looked right at the window she was watching them through.
Tonya froze. It was the young man who had got off his horse, the one Mrs Miler had reached out her hand to. It seemed to Tonya that they were looking into each other’s eyes.
He can’t possibly see me through the curtains!
The young man jumped down from his horse and headed straight for the gate.
One of the older men shouted something and shook his head. The young man hesitated, but in the end he swung himself back into the saddle.
The riders spurred their horses and moved off at a gallop. The clattering of hooves on asphalt receded into the distance.
Tonya stood on the porch, summoning up the courage to leave the house.
In the distance she spotted a massive whirlwind.
It was stretching and twisting. Its funnel drew closer to the ground, raising clouds of dust. Like the finger of God, it touched the surface of the earth and raised up soil, which swirled upwards and fell back down in an arc. It ploughed up the land, moving back and forth across the surface. An electricity pylon got in its path. The wires snapped like the strings of a guitar. But no sparks flew, they weren’t carrying a current. Eventually the mast itself cracked and the tornado tossed it tens of metres away.
In horror, Tonya slunk back into the house, shut the door and sat down in the farthest corner of the room.
“What’s a tornado doing here?”she asked Goliath in a whisper. He didn’t know.
The tornado avoided Slatina, and yet Tonya couldn’t find the courage to leave and decided to spend the night in the house. Not that she would be able to sleep…
Thoughts were whirling around her head like leaves in a storm. She had to get everything straight or she would go crazy. After all, she was a student (or had been, she wasn’t sure yet) at Charles University! She had managed to make her mark in that terrible throng at the entrance exams!
She had come second, for God’s sake!
Well, if you’re so clever, why are you cowering in the corner, holding the neighbour’s Yorkshire terrier in your lap like a living shield?
She would go about it methodically. First: part of Rosenberg had disappeared and a forest had appeared in its place. Thanks to an interest in local history, she remembered that the nameless ruin on the hill dated back to the early thirteenth century. She could only remember fragments of the attack on her and Mrs Miler, so it was hard to say for sure whether the people with swords belonged to the thirteenth century too, but she wouldn’t rule it out.
Second: the village of Slatina, where she had come in search of help, had also been affected by this catastrophe. The line or boundary that had cut off her and the Milers’ house along with the tarmac road passed through Slatina crosswise. It had cut off the road, slicing a bus and the houses in half. And even a person. Where had the other half gone? To the location of the grassy meadow that had appeared here?
So the entire twenty-first century had not disappeared. On the other hand, apart from her dead neighbours, she hadn’t come across anyone else from her time yet.
Tonya stared blankly into the darkness. So what did that tell her?
It didn’t tell her a FUCKING thing! It was one huge mess and in spite of all her staggering intelligence she didn’t have a clue what the FUCK was going on!
She was on the verge of tears again. She took a deep breath –she had to calm down, she mustn’t panic. God, she missed her parents! Not for the first time, she wondered where they were and whether she would see them again.
Back to a pragmatic analysis of the situation! she snapped at herself.
What was she to do now? In any case, she couldn’t just hang around here. A few kilometres to the east was (or had been) the motorway leading to Budweis. She must set off in that direction and hope that the regional capital had remained in place along with its inhabitants.
Religion had never made sense to Tonya, but right now she was close to praying.
She felt the dog’s rough little tongue on her face, and her head jerked back and banged against the wall. Birds were already announcing the arrival of a new day with their song, and sunshine was streaming into the room through the windows.
So she had gone to sleep! She’d been convinced she would be awake all night. It was getting on for seven. The clock on the wall was still ticking away, utterly indifferent to the catastrophe going on around it. Tonya’s stomach growled loudly. When had she last eaten? She quickly ransacked the pantry and the musty, warm fridge (it didn’t dawn on her until several hours later that there was a grocery store packed with goods across the road) and grabbed a few muesli bars and half a loaf of bread.
Cautiously, she went out onto the street. Nothing had changed – it was just as lifeless as yesterday. At least the wind had died down – the strong gusts were more and more sporadic.
She kept to the fence, ready to head for cover at a moment’s notice if she heard hoof beats behind her again. She left the village and set off across the field towards the motorway, nibbling on the loaf as she did so. She fed the begging Goliath too.
After half an hour, she spotted the motorway slip road. As she climbed over the crash barrier, she realized that in all that time she hadn’t heard the noise of tyres rolling by. So she wasn’t at all surprised to find that the motorway was empty.
A blue sign announced that Budweis was five kilometres away. The housing estate where she had grown up was even further– about eight or nine kilometres. She adjusted the straps of her rucksack and set her pace.
However, she didn’t get far. After another five hundred metres, the motorway came to an end.
Tonya stopped a metre from the edge. The four streams of the roadway ended in a smooth cut. This sight was beginning to get tiresome. The cut also went through the crash barriers and high-tension wires that ran alongside the motorway. Thick cables hung from the last iron pylon, swaying in the wind. The asphalt turned into a muddy dirt track with ruts in it.
Did that mean that the whole of Budweis had vanished as well?
Even Mum and Dad?
Since the day before, Tonya had had the feeling that it would only take the proverbial last straw for her to crack up completely. Was this it? Was this the final straw that would free her from this nightmare and plunge her into a blessed state of insanity?
In the distance she spotted some figures on horseback in the fields. They noticed her at the same moment she noticed them. She watched almost impassively as the riders pointed at her and urged their mounts on. The hooves of the galloping horses threw up clods of earth.
What are you doing?! Pull yourself together!
Tonya looked at the dirt track in front of her. She knew she didn’t stand much of a chance, but she wasn’t going to wait here for them.
“Goli!”she yelled at the dog and started running between the ruts in the direction where Budweis had once been. She obviously wouldn’t have time to find out what was in its place now.
She was good at running. She had gone in for athletics at secondary school. She set the pace fora brisk 1500-metres. The rucksack slapped against her back. Goliath was way ahead of her. Every few metres, he stopped and waited for her to catch up.
During the last stop, he looked past her. He growled and barked.
She didn’t turn around. She didn’t want to see what was descending upon her.
She could already hear the heavy pounding of hooves. She ran blindly, unable to see through the tears. Massive shadows flitted past her. One of the horses was blocking her path. She made to run around it, but the experienced rider spurred his mount and Tonya slammed against its side and fell down into the mud.
She could no longer hold back the tears. She cried hysterically like a little child. Goliath ran up to her and licked her tears. Then he wheeled around belligerently and began to bark at the circling horses.
Tonya pressed his quivering body to her and buried her face in his fur. At any moment she expected a blow from a sword and blinding pain.
I don’t want to die…
Or would they rape her first?!
This new idea made her look up. The riders dismounted, formed a circle around her and spoke quietly to each other.
“Pl… please… don’t hurt me…”
Her perception was heightened. She saw the wrinkles in their weather-beaten faces, long greasy hair, dirt under their nails, rough hands loosely laid on the unpolished hilts of their swords…
The oldest of them took a step towards her. Tonya backed away on all fours, and someone else grabbed her from behind by the hair. She didn’t even realize she was screaming.
Alarmed, Goliath snapped at the rider’s leg. The man bent down and grabbed the dog by the neck like a rabbit. He pulled out a dagger, obviously intending to gut him like a rabbit too… But then he raised his head and looked somewhere beyond Tonya. He stopped, suddenly turned to stone.
Tonya stared wide-eyed into his blue eyes. She was surprised by the intelligence that emanated from them. Intelligence and something else…
The man let Goliath drop to the ground. The grip on her hair relaxed. Tonya seized the dog, curled up into a ball and, crouching, looked behind her.
Another group of riders was coming along the track towards them. They were dressed in black with white, sticking-up collars and feathered hats on their heads. They levelled long spears in front of them. One of them was wearing an iron breastplate and holding a gun whose barrel was ludicrously widened at the end. It looked like something from a cartoon.
Her captors ceased to pay attention to her and took up a position across the track. With Goliath on her chest, Tonya watched through their legs to see what would happen next.
Those standing on the ground were at a numerical advantage compared to the oncoming riders – six against four. One of them looked around longingly at his horse, but there was no time for him to mount it. The men unsheathed their swords.
“Whaet be yeher adoen? Whoe be ye?” shouted the blunderbuss-wielding rider.
The men flinched and then shouted something in their language. Amid the torrent of words, Tonya understood only one thing: who. They were obviously asking each other who they were.
Now the ones on horseback were gaping in bewilderment. Then the oldest of the men (the one who had killed Mrs Miler) seemed to remember Tonya. In two steps he was beside her, pulled her head back by the hair and put the edge of his sword to her neck. She felt the sharp blade on her delicate skin.
The unbelievably sharp blade!
I’m dying… Mum, I’m dying…
The man held the sword and stared at the others. Maybe he thought Tonya was one of them.
The rider in the breastplate spurred his horse. He slowly rode up to the odd duo. He looked down at Tonya, scrutinizing her clothes, then turned his gaze back to the guy holding the sword. He extended the hand with the gun. The muzzle of the weapon looked monstrously wide to Tonya. It no longer seemed to her remotely like a blunderbuss from a cartoon.
The guy preparing to slit her throat didn’t bat an eyelid. He stared uncomprehendingly into the dark barrel as if it was the first time in his life he had seen a firearm.
And it probably is, it occurred to Tonya.
Then there was a deafening bang. The man’s head jerked back, and bloody lumps flew out of the top of his head. The whole scene was shrouded in acrid white smoke. Tonya could only hear the horses running away. Then cries of pain.
When the smoke cleared, she saw the last of her captors fleeing along the track. The rider quickly caught up with him and drove a long wooden spear into his back. Then he jumped down from his horse, slowly walked up to the poor grovelling wretch, pulled out a knife and bent down…
Tonya squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She had seen enough blood over the last two days.
She felt gentle fingers under her chin; they raised up her head and she found herself looking into the hazel eyes of her rescuer.
“Comlymeiden, be neafearet.”
It was the legion’s second day on the march. Lucius was mounted on horseback in the middle of the marching formation, thinking about all the curious things he had witnessed over the last few days. They were moving through the region of the Germanic Marcomanni, a people recently defeated and, following a protracted war, forced to make an ignominious peace by Marcus Aurelius himself.
But everything was wrong. The hills and rocks were in the same places as before, but entire forests had disappeared or occasionally turned up where they hadn’t been before. Towns and settlements had also disappeared, so that not a single trace was left of them.
Just as Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus had disappeared, along with most of the officers, including the legates and first tribunes, and the entire military camp of twelve thousand people.
Full responsibility now rested on Lucius’s shoulders. Never before had he commanded the legion on the march in enemy territory. However, he was not about to let the pressure get to him. It was just another opportunity that he had to seize. In twenty-three years of service, he had been through everything possible, killed hundreds of people and burned down dozens of villages. At least five times, he’d been convinced he was dead. He had been ruthless and tough to get where he was today, and he wasn’t about to let anyone take it away from him.
After three years of fighting, the Second Legion was in a pitiable state. The only officers left were a few young and inexperienced tribunes. He had left five hundred men in the camp and set out with the rest to search for Marcus Aurelius. He had to find him! The disappearance of the emperor and his son would be a disaster for the empire.
Riders from the vanguard were approaching. The order to halt approached like a wave from the first century at the head of the column.
“What is it now?”he growled and set out to meet the riders.
“Sir, you should see this,”shouted the breathless decurion – the commander of the cavalry scouts. Lucius spurred his horse and headed towards the front lines. Even from a distance, he could see the reason for the halt.
“Sir, we didn’t know whether to go on…”he was informed by Hilarius, the centurion commanding the first cohort.
“Gods, „gasped Lucius, pulling up his horse in front of the end line of grass. Beyond it stretched a kind of scorched desert. It was as if some Titan had cut away the grass covering the surrounding plain with a giant knife to reveal a mouldering dark-brown subsoil. The line where the grass ended was as straight as a ruler. Extending all the way to the horizon was a lifeless desert on which narrow whirlwinds swirled the black dust. The wind blew it into the horses’ and people’s eyes. Stallions snorted loudly. The dust clung to their hair and formed a sticky coating on the segmented armour.
“What now, sir?”asked Hilarius. Lucius felt the eyes of the tribunes and legionaries upon him. He urged his horse on. It snorted in protest but broke into a trot; as it did so, its hooves churned up the dust, which billowed like smoke. The whole army watched as he rode off into the strange, lifeless landscape.
Before him loomed a hill, and on its summit stood a twisted black trunk. He rode towards it. He heard the hoof beats of other riders behind him. They couldn’t leave their commander unprotected. Tribune Arius drew up alongside him and smiled sheepishly at him.
From the top of the hill, they were met by a dismal view– the black landscape stretched all the way to the horizon, where it ended in a line of dark forest. It was a good three miles away. Maybe more.
“The legionaries won’t want to go in there,” Arius observed quietly.
Lucius knew that –even now they were grumbling and were frightened of black magic. If he forced them, he’d have a revolt on his hands.
“Don’t you want to find your father? Or the emperor?!”
“I do, but they could be anywhere. So far there’s not a sign of them.”
“Sir, there’s something over there, „one of the scouts broke in.
In the distance, the sun was reflecting off something metallic.
“Arius, go back. If anything happens to us, you have command of the Second, is that clear?”
Arius wanted to make some objection, but then the arrogance that had been instilled in him all his life prevailed and he merely nodded. As if commanding the legion was something he did every other day.
“Gentlemen, let’s go and check it out, „hollered Lucius.
Ten riders galloped towards the glittering point. The men looked around nervously, searching for an ambush. Lucius squinted through the haze of sunshine and floating dust and tried to work out what it was. Sweat trickled down from under his helmet and dripped off his chin. Under the plate armour on his back, it merged into a single stream. Was it just his imagination, or was it hotter here? It was the beginning of the month of Julius – had summer finally arrived in full force?
The thing was getting larger, but it was still hard to make out its contours. However, it was clear that it was big.
And that it was made entirely of metal.
“What is that? A statue?”asked one of the scouts. At that moment Lucius envied him his youthful eyes.
They went closer and even he could see that it looked like a person. Like a giant made of silver.
They stopped ten feet away from the thing. Lucius was the first to dismount. Without even thinking about it, he unsheathed his sword. He heard the others doing the same. He slowly stepped towards the kneeling giant. It was sitting on its heels, its hands resting loosely in its lap. Lucius leaned back and looked up. The faceless head was as smooth as a catapult projectile, and the giant’s chin was resting on its breast. The whole thing was made of smooth metal – only on the top of the head and the shoulders were there shiny black strips. The surface was scratched, and in severalplacesthere were long grooves.
You could use this to make swords for the entire cohort…it crossed Lucius’s mind.
The statue was kneeling in a relaxed position; like a tired person who has suddenly had enough and wants to take a breather.
Who had brought it here? And how?
Of course, he had seen Egyptian monuments. After all, there were dozens of giant statues of gods or of the emperor in every major city in the empire. But why would someone go to the trouble of dragging this colossus into a wasteland like this? What’s more, its position was that of a worn-out slave, not a heroic god like most statues.
“Sir, come and see this, „someone cried out.
Lucius walked around the monster in trepidation.
Then he stopped, dumbfounded. When he realized what he was looking at, he unconsciously took a few steps back.
So that was one mystery solved…
Leading up to the sitting giant were deep prints the same size as its feet.
This metal titan had made its own way here and then knelt down exhausted in the dust!
Jan Zbozenski primed the flintlock with a shaking hand and carefully clicked the lock shut. He poured a measure of powder into the barrel, dropped in a lead pellet andpushedit in with a ramrod. The movement soothed him. His friend Wilem Rohach affectionately called it banging the barrel.
He turned to him. Vilém smiled at him, but beneath his relaxed maskit was obviousthat the battle hadreally unnerved him.
Jan’s gaze moved over the scattered bodies. Where had these marauders come from? From Austria or Moravia? What had God done to the world? Was this Armageddon?
Then he looked at the creature –the girl.
Where had she sprung from? Those garishly colourful clothes of hers… That red hair… It wasn’t ginger but dark red and shining. Where was that from – Hell or Heaven?
“Stop banging that barrel, it looks obscene,”remarked Vilém. “What will we do with her?”
“We’ll bring her with us.”
“Do you realizethe trouble she could cause?”
Jan did. The whole town was slowly but surely descending into madness. People sought solace in the churches. The Germans put the blame on the Czechs,and the Czechs on the Jews, the Catholics on the Utraquists, and vice versa.
The west of the town remained as it had been the day before. But the north, east and south had changed. The road to Austria suddenly ended in a desolate plain. The fish pond Jan had invested a fortune in had vanished during the night as if it had never existed. Part of the town’s triple defensivewalls and the houses attached to them had also disappeared, along with their inhabitants.
And the road north to Pragueended…in this.
He looked at the dark, rock-hard substance stretching into the distance. The intermittent white stripes were disturbing. It looked like the road to Hell.
“Where do you think it leads?”asked Vilém.
Jan didn’t want to know the answer. “We’ll have to throw a cloak over her and hide her head.”
“The men will talk.”
“No, they won’t, they’re my men,”he said confidently, though he didn’t really believe it himself.
They went back to the horses. The girl was standing huddled under a hood, clutching a small, nervous dog to her breast. When he tried to take it away from herand drive it into the forest, she put up resistance. He backed off – he didn’t have timeto argue.
He swung himself up onto his horse andreached out a hand to her. She gaped at him as if he were a ghost – had she never seen a horse before? Vilém held out his palms and she finally climbed up behind him. She grabbed him around the waist with one hand, holding the miniature dog in the other.
He was about to urge his steed away from this godless place. Then he looked down at her shoes. They were ablaze with colours he couldn’t even name.
“Take off your shoes,”he told her. He had no idea whether she understood him.
Vilém made to snatchthem off her.
“No!”Her first word. Then she said something harsh and vaguely familiar. It was almost comprehensible, but not quite. She had understood – she took off the shoes herself and stuffed them into her sack.
The small group of riders headed back towards Budweis. Jan had to protect this girl at least untilhe found out what had happened to the world. She had to tell him what God was up toand what He had in mind for him.
She wasn’t from this world, that was clear.
He hoped that she was His messenger, because if the opposite was true he would have to kill her at once.
On the third day of radio silence, the tanks arrived at the depot. Kurtz jumped down from the Tiger and every nerve in his face screamed with pain. He expected half his face to simply fall off.
However, it remained in place. Shrivelled and distorted.
“Herr Obersturmbannführer, take some morphine.”
“It’s all right, Hoffmann, I’ve already had some today.”He had no idea if it was true. The last few days had merged together into a single drawn-out agony.
He glanced back at his last two tanks. Yesterday they’d had to hastily bury another two men by the road. Soldiers, darting out from under camouflage netting, carried off the wounded.
Three days ago, an enemy plane had given them a real working over. It was only a matter of time before the fighter finished them off, but then it had vanished into thin air.
The base was surprisingly lively. Kurtz strode beneath the camouflage netting and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. “Commanding officer?”
“Sir?”A stocky youth got to his feet and, his gaze fixed on Kurtz’s collar with the two lightning bolts on it, his right arm shot up. His eyes strayed to Kurtz’smelted face. “Lieutenant Jansen, 308thMountain Infantry Division.”
“Hermann Kurtz, SS Obersturmbannführer, 26thTank Battalion. I’m taking over command. I want you to inform me of the condition of the men, equipment and our closest positions.”
“Your tanks are the only ones that made it here from the south. We still have one half-track transporter, two trucks and three motorbikes equipped with machine guns. One eighty-eight artillery gun with a broken shaft. Before you arrived, the count was ninety-five men, nearly a third injured but fit for combat. Eight men seriously wounded,” Jansen’s eyes strayed to the injured part of Kurtz’s face again. He was almost hypnotized by the sight. “You should get yourself looked at, sir, „he added quietly.
“And the closest positions?” Kurtz said, ignoring him.
“There’s the village of Lucignano three kilometres north, Monteroni another two kilometres on. I sent motorbikes to Siena, fifteen kilometres away. Our radio’s broken, we’re as good as blind.”
“Your radio isn’t broken,” Kurtz corrected him. “There’s absolute silence.”
“What do you mean, absolute?”
“There’s nothing at all. Not a peep for three days. You can’t get through to anywhere at all, Lieutenant. The British are hard on our heels. I reckon they’ll be here by evening, tomorrow morning at the latest. We need to prepare defensive positions.”
“With two tanks and one artillery gun against the Thirteenth British Corps…sir?”
Kurtz, who was already poised to leave, turned around. “Lieutenant, we would face them even if we had nothing but bayonets. There’s no point in fleeing, we wouldn’t make it to the Gothic Line. What’s more, we would be exposed to the air force. Look what a single fighter did to my company. Here we have cover and we have supplies. With a bit of luck, we’ll hold out for a few days.” Kurtz’s eyes blazed. “We’ll take a few of those bastards with us.”He was looking through Jansen, as if a film of his own heroic death was playing in his head. Then he grasped the lieutenant’s shoulder with his burnt hand. Jansen stared in horror at the singed fingers.
It must have been incredibly painful!
“We have great moments ahead of us, my friend, „said Kurtz, smiling with half his face, and he walked away.
Or we could just surrender, thought Jansen. But he couldn’t say that to a fanatic with SS lightning bolts on his collar.
The entire legion stood motionless in the sweltering sun. Their helmets and segmented shoulder guards were getting so hot they would soon be able to fry eggs on them. Lucius stood in front of his men, in full armour just like them, his hands clasped behind his back. He stood like a statue. He’d had a bellyful of this, but he had to show the men he was as tough as they were.
The quiet camp echoed with the swishing of whips, followed by smacking blows as the braided leather bit into the chopped-up backs of the condemned men. The moans and cries of pain had already ceased. All nine men had fallen under the merciful spell of Somnus, the god of sleep.
Three days on the march and already the first signs of rebellion had appeared!
Lucius had led the legion around the kneeling giant, giving it a wide berth so his men wouldn’t see it, and forbidden the scouts to speak of it. Fortunately, before evening fell they had left the inhospitable burnt land behind, crossed the straight line where wild grass and luxuriant trees grew again, and found themselves back in the world they thought they knew.
He wasn’t naive. He had known that talk of the sitting giant would spread all the same, but an attempted revolt the very next day?!
He clenched his jaws in anger. He had absolute confidence in his men and he’d believed that it was mutual. If some of the centurions – the respected and worthy veterans who were the backbone of the legion – had come to his tent, perhaps he would have been able to convince them. But they had been joined by the tribunes, headed by Arius. They brandished their ancestry and their fathers’ connections.
Lucius tried to speak calmly: They were in the territory of the enemy Marcomanni. Two legions had disappeared along with the emperor and the entire command. They might be surrounded somewhere, they might need help… Even to him, it sounded increasingly like nonsense.
Arius rudely cut in: apparently, they were of a different opinion! They should go back to the original camp and wait for the emperor to show up…
At that moment Lucius’s self-control gave up the ghost. He wasn’t about to let some whippersnapper whose first hair had sprouted on his upper lip the year before lecture him on how to lead an army! He drew Arius towards him and smashed his face in with his right hand. The lad didn’t even duck, just watched in disbelief as the calloused fist came towards him. That was how convinced he was that he was untouchable.
Lucius held the limp body by the collar of the polished plate armour never christened in battle. He was breathing hard and blood was dripping off his clenched fist. The rebellious centurions and tribunes stared at him, petrified. If they had pounced on him just then, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. But no-one moved. Lucius let go of the body and angrily forged a path for himself.
“Fetch your men!”he bellowed at Hilarius, the centurion of the first cohort, who was the only one of the older centurions not to take part in the small protest delegation. That came as no surprise to Lucius – he didn’t know if he could quite call him a friend, but he had known him the longest and fought countless battles by his side.
Those few moments in front of the command tent seemed endless. The rebellious centurions stood silently awaiting their fate. The tribunes tried to talk their way out of the whole thing, almost making a joke out of it. Lucius completely ignored the tribunes and glared at the officers, whom he had trusted like his own sons. The centurions merely lowered their eyes in shame. At that moment they could still have drawn their swords and killed him, and he couldn’t have done a thing. Instead, they let themselves be disarmed without resistance by the legionaries who came rushing in.
A charge of treason generally meant a cruel death. Lucius felt sorry for the men, and in a way he understood them – they had been forced into their position by grumbling legionaries and conceited tribunes (after all, even he had been frightened), but he couldn’t let any of that show. Discipline in the legion would have instantly gone to hell.
So now he watched as they untied the nine naked bodies, which looked more like freshly slaughtered animals. In normal circumstances, he would have had them stoned or flogged and left in the wilderness. However, these were not normal circumstances. In a single night, the world around them had changed beyond recognition. Nothing was in its place and there were iron giants wandering around here. He himself didn’t believe that this was the land of the subjugatedMarcomanni. It was the land of someone else entirely, and he was beginning to dread the moment when he found out who.
His gaze flew to the bound tribunes. Arius’s face was swollen and one of his eyes could hardly be seen. The other one glared at him fiercely. Although Lucius was on good terms with the emperor and knew that the old man respected him, he feared unpleasant consequences if he had young patricians flogged. He had stripped them of their rank and would bring them along as captives –let the emperor deal with them himself.
That is, if they ever found Marcus Aurelius…
Tonya held onto the stranger’s waist and tried to move her hips along with the rocking of the horse’s back. Her thighs hurt from desperately clinging on to its massive body. In contrast, the monotonous movement lulled Goliath to sleep.
They passed by several homesteads and farms, mostly deserted. They met only a few people, who paid no attention to them and, with an incredulous expression, hurried in the same direction as them.
“Budweis?”she said quietly in the stranger’s ear.
He turned around with surprise in his eyes. He nodded.
So Budweis was still there. However, it was diametrically different to the place she had visited a week ago to drop in on her parents and pick up the keys to the house.
They should have passed the housing estate where her mum and dad lived long before now.
They were gone. They had fallen through into who-knows-where, and Tonya was left alone at the mercy of this savage world.
They were approaching a massive set of walls equipped with loopholes and towers. In front of the gate stood a stronghold that protected the entrance to the town. Anyone who wanted to pass through the town gate first had to pass through the stronghold. It took them right onto the bridge over the Malse and up to the gate.
History was coming to life before her eyes, and in spite of her anxiety about her parents and her uncertain future, Tonya was fascinated. The hooves clattered over the wooden drawbridge. They rode through the gate and found themselves in the town itself. The paving stones were barely visible beneath the accumulated mud and rotting garbage. They passed by small, squat houses, but as they got closer to the centre with its large square and tall, impressive town hall, the buildings grew in height and ostentation. She recognized some of them, and yet there was something about the skyline of the town centre that didn’t seem right.
What was missing?
Then it struck her. The Black Tower – the dominant feature of the historical centre in the twenty-first century – wasn’t looming above the town. They hadn’t even started building it yet!
What time have I ended up in?
She recalled that the tower had been completed in the 1570s and construction had begun around the middle of the century…
So this must be the first half of the sixteenth century. Or perhaps even the fifteenth century? The early modern age had never been her forte; she had studied classical archaeology – Greece, Rome… However, that was of no use to her now.
The four horses with five riders headed straight for the square. A bunch of people were gathered around a passionately ranting preacher on the foul-smelling street. A group of men emerged from one of the side streets and began to shout insults at the gathering. Some of them made themselves scarce; others stood their ground against the newcomers.
The stranger she was holding onto guided the horse around the passionately gesticulating assembly. Several halberdiers in iron breastplates trotted into the street to disperse the crowd. So peace definitely did not reign in the town. Fortunately, nobody was paying attention to their little procession. Judging by the soldiers’ clothing and weapons, it did look more like the sixteenth century, although Tonya couldn’t be sure.
They rode into the square. It hardly differed at all to the form in which she knew it. It was only lacking the central fountain, in place of which there now stood a gallows and pillory. They made for one of the opulent houses with a coloured façade. The square was full of people. A stream of people was heading towards the church of St Nicholas, which the Black Tower would loom over in the future. For a brief moment, Tonya glimpsed the crowd jostling in front of the entrance. Another large group of townspeople was besieging the town hall and shouting something in the windows. Town guards with halberds in their hands were shuffling nervously in front of the entrance.
A few people turned around out of curiosity at the sound of hoof beats. Tonya shrank back, hiding her face in the shadow of her hood. The populace seemed pretty annoyed. She couldn’t imagine what they would do with a stranger from the future that they would regard as God-knows-what. Not even the brown-eyed stranger would save her from the crowd.
Both wings of the iron-studded gate opened, and the horses went into the building. Barefoot stable boys immediately took charge of them, and the man dismounted and helped Tonya down as well; Goliath, well rested, began to explore the terrain. The stableboys shot curious glances at the girl. While the other three men went off to the stables, the master of the house indicated to her which door she should go through.
They went up to the first floor. Any visit to a historical monument was accompanied by the odour of old wood and damp stone, but now Tonya smelled the sound, smoothly finished planks beneath her feet and the scent of the lime used to whitewash the walls. The fragrance of roast meat and some kind of herbs wafted through the house.
This is unbelievable! I’m really here, in the sixteenth century! It was as if she had only just woken up and discovered that it wasn’t a dream.
They entered a pleasant little wood-panelled room. She went up to the lone window, which let in a dim light. The rippled glass panes (which must have been the height of luxury at the time) prevented a clear view of the square. The black crowd was still occupying half the square and the street leading up to the church.
The master of the house yelled something down the stairs, and then looked at her thoughtfully. She smiled – that couldn’t do any harm, could it? He tried to return the smile but didn’t quite manage it.
A girl entered the room carrying a platter with pieces of steaming meat, bread and apple. She put it down on the table. She looked at Tonya and her mouth opened in astonishment. She might have been thirteen or fourteen, but her front teeth were already blackened.
“Be a gone, Anna!” her master snapped. The girl obediently lowered her eyes and almost silently glided out of the room.
“Ih be Jan Zbozenski,” he said, pointing at his chest. Then he held out his palm towards Tonya expectantly.
“Ih be Tonya,” she said, trying to imitate his way of speaking.
He smiled a little. Then he pointed at the food and told her to eat (or at least she thought so). He bowed and closed the door behind him. Tonya heard the click of the lock as he turned the key.
So she was a prisoner rather than a guest.
She tore into the surprisingly fragrant meat. The flavour was simple, just boiled salt pork with a hint of herbs, but her famished stomach welcomed it with jubilation. In the last two days she had only had dry bread and a couple of muesli bars. And that flatbread was so crunchy… She shared the meat with the whining Goliath.
With her stomach full, she was hit by a terrible fatigue. She lay down on the bed with her clothes on and sank into the soft eiderdowns. Goliath jumped up and curled up beside her. Her legs stuck out of the short bed, but she didn’t care.
For the first time since this madness had begun, she felt calm and relatively safe. She allowed herself the luxury of thinking about her parents. Her heart was immediately filled with sadness and anxiety. Somewhere, perhaps in some other dimension, her mum was lying there worried, thinking about her.
Then she remembered Petr, that bastard! And in spite of everything he had done to her, she missed him too. They had met in a pub. She was in second year, Petr an experienced fourth-year. He had been on foreign digs, had a grant lined upland on top of that was a tall, tanned athlete. He reminded Tonya of a young Indiana Jones. She fell in love with him and, though she didn’t want to admit it to herself, almost worshipped him.
So it came as a real shock when she found out he had fucked her friend. The worst of it was that in her infatuation she might even have forgiven him if he hadn’t reacted to the whole situation in such a self-righteous way. After all, nothing had really happened… They were young, and Tonya should get used to a more open relationship… Anyway, he apparently felt that she was smothering him, holding him back… When he then suggested to her on Facebook just before the holidays that she join him in a threesome with her (now former) friend, she packed her things and ran back home. She had wanted to recover her lost mental equilibrium over the holidays.
Slowly, she had been succeeding. And then civilization had broken down and her mental equilibrium was out the window again.
She mustn’t think about the people she loved or had loved, that would only plunge her into depression. Instead, she should focus on analysing her current situation!
So, what did she know? Right now she was in Budweis in the first half of the sixteenth century (probably). What did she know about that time? After a moment’s reflection, she realized it wasn’t much. Her mind went back to the battle. The two groups of riders had evidently not understood one another, even though there was less than ten kilometres separating Budweis and the fortress in the forest. What did that mean? That each group came from a different time?
Tonya opened her eyes in surprise.
Yes! That would fit! She knew for certain that the fortress dated back to the thirteenth century. A sign attached to a tree near the ruin stated that it had lost its importance during the fifteenth century and gradually fallen into decline. She had visited the ruin a number of times. She’d had her first kiss there and let the first boy touch her breasts under her T-shirt. She had read that bloody sign so many times!
If she was in sixteenth-century Budweis, the fortress should no longer be inhabited!
Her heart began to pound with excitement.
Did that mean that the time lines had somehow got mixed up? There was a piece of the thirteenth century, followed by a strip of land with the twenty-first century and the remains of Rosenberg and Slatina, and finally a stretch of land with the sixteenth century and Budweis? If that were true, it would also explain the gusts of wind, even that tornado. After all, they occur when cold air collides with warm air, right? And if two time periods with different climatic conditions met, it could happen…
What was next? Prehistoric times?
Or the future?
She went through the questions, examining every possibility…
…and in the meantime, the bed was so delightfully soft.
Before she fell into her first deep sleep in the last sixty hours, two unsettling thoughts occurred to her.
What time had her parents fallen through into?
And immediately afterwards: would the twenty-first century come back, or was the change irreversible?
Serena lay in the meadow, the cool grass tickling her naked body. An insect was crawling along one green blade – it reached the top, unfolded its red wing cases and flew off. It was a fascinating sight.
She turned over onto her back and gazed into the endless blue of the sky. That terrifying depth made her head spin. She breathed in the sweet scent of grass and watched an approaching cloud. The white mass floated majestically across the sky, covering the radiant sun.
Never in her life had she seen blue sky or green grass.
If it came to that, she had never seen the sun either (unless you counted a pale disc shining through yellow-brown clouds). This was the first time she had ever felt sunbeams – real ones, not fake ones– on her bare skin. It was almost like sex.
She raised herself up on her elbows and gazed into the distance. The plain stretched for kilometres around the river, some insects were flying above the surface, and in the distance a forest rustled. There was the outline of a grey mass of mountains on the horizon. Maybe it was the Alps, maybe not; it wasn’t important.
She took a deep breath – the world smelled of life. She stood up and stretched blissfully. As soon as the sun hid behind the clouds, she began to get cold. This world was enchanting, but it was cooler too. She put on the jumpsuit she’d hung on the bushes; against her thigh she felt the weight of the gun concealed in its holster. She unwrapped the last high-nutrition sustenance pack. It would provide her with a dose of nutrients and energy for the next two days. Then she would no longer have anything to eat, but right now Serena didn’t care, she would happily starve. It was worth it for that sense of freedom, for that view.
Maybe she would start hunting…
For the first time in her life, she had seen wild animals. Birds in the sky. Some fish in the crystal-clear river. She had no idea how to catch them, but she would figure something out. She could try shooting them. If the worst came to the worst, she would go back and get Tee, who she’d left a few kilometres north, and release a current into the stream.
She felt like Eve, who according to an ancient legend was the first girl in the world.
Once again it crossed her mind that she might have been killed in action. Perhaps some rocket the instruments hadn’t had time to register.
She sauntered barefoot through the grass, enjoying its cool tickling. Yes, this was more or less how she pictured the Eternal Garden, although she didn’t believe she’d be entitled to it after this life. Perhaps after the next one…
A few days earlier, she had been walking through the dusty countryside with Tee, searching for the vanguard of the starving Balkan tribes led by the Albanian caliph. She had released the flies – robotic insects that were able to find an Islamist hiding under a rock and guide a rocket towards him; the sky was guarded by a battle station which had an excellent view over thirty-five kilometres and would destroy all approaching missiles…
And then in a single moment everything went quiet. She lost control of the flies, as well as contact with the crew, and the microwave power supply from the satellite ceased. Suddenly she was deaf and almost blind, forced to rely solely on what she could see with her own eyes.
Titanus 105 was powered by the satellite; without the energy supply from orbit, she was completely dependent on the emergency solar panels on the shoulders and head. They were enough to get the five-metre robot moving and maintain Serena’s vital functions – she was even able to use relatively weak weapons systems, but that was all. She was slow and vulnerable.
To make matters worse, a wall of strong wind sprang up, and the dust it stirred up practically blinded her. She knelt down and waited all day for it to blow over. She assumed it was the shock wave of a nuclear explosion, but the radiation indicator reported natural values.
When the gale subsided, she roamed through the lifeless landscape for a while longer. Contact had not been restored, and when she caught sight of trees and grass in the distance, she could not resist climbing out. She left Tee kneeling in the dust and set out to explore on foot. In doing so, she had violated a basic rule: under no circumstances abandon the battle robot.
But she couldn’t desecrate this paradise with a war machine.