It began with the wind.
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 pyjamabottoms 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 youbecame long-sighted or short-sighted oryou 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 roadworkers use was called) and carried it off somewhere. She knew nothing at all about construction work, but it was clearto her that this was nonsense.
Herfingers 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 belovedPcheryrustled 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 roadended 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 crossedthis 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 walkingthrough 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 wayso she wouldn’t bump into them. And she was wandering among them, looking up at the skylike 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 loweredin 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 frombeneath 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 Pchery?’ 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 driedon 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 upa 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 offa 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 Pchery,’ 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 operatorsor 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 České Budějovice. 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 geta littledull. 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 roadfrom one house to the other. Both of themglanced downthe 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 aroundexcitedly. 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 onstraightened 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 wasnow 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 havethought 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 fearfullyonthe hill with the dark forest sprawlingbelowthem. 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 sweatingand covered in dirt.
Her husband lay in the hallway of the house, wrapped in a white sheetbound 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 beencowering in her house like a hamster, watchingthrough 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 rockeryto 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 breathtakingnew 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 sentencestruck 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 declaredsweetly that if Tonya didn’t want todo 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 treetrunks, 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 drivearound 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 Tonyaput her foot down and the Peugeot waddled its way along the forest path.
The fuel lightglowed 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’snot about to happen –more likelywe’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, throwinga 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 ina 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, sothey were probablydugouts. To the side of the settlement there was some kind of smokingmound– 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 cowlbelted 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 asmall hill witha 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 massivefortress 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 cometo 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 togo into any dark places. But of course, againsther 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 acamp?’
Tonya looked at her in dismay.Mrs Miler didn’t noticethough, 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 bloodymedieval fortressover 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 asidethe 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 ofRussian.
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 freeof 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 ridersyelled 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 longsword 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 hoofbeats 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 hepluckedup the courage totry to touch Tonya through the side window. His fingers hit the glass. It was obviously his first encounter with glass because he jumped backwith 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 defeather. 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 likean 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 fuckingmedieval 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 whateverseemedessential: 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 obeyeven 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 toČeskéBudějovice.
She began running,Goliathup ahead of her, filled with the joys at such a brisk outing.
Very slowly,with an epicurean expression,Lucius Barolowered 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 inopportunemoment. 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 armwearily. Although the young patricianwas 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 nowintensified 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 legionshavedisappeared?’ 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 returnany moment now.’
What was it about this picturethat 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 almostcertain 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 downfrom 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 mightnot 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 instanthe was struck by the full weight of the moment.
‘So, what news do you bring, decurion?’
‘Sir, it looks as thoughthe camp had never been there. The lie of the land is slightly different and there are trees thatdefinitely 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 backstreetthat 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 sighteda 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 thenhowled 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 damnsun 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 likethat ridiculous army of theirs!
Kurtz released the safety catch of the machinegun 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 machinegun thundered,and the fleeing figures bit the dust.
They were dead, but Kurtz didn’t let go of the trigger. There was something poetic aboutthe clouds of dust the bulletssent 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.