Inferium

 

1

 

It was August and a war was raging on Earth.

       Bumping along a dirt road that wound between golden fields came a cart pulled by a gelding, an oak barrel carefully tied onto the back. A tall man strode beside the animal. His body was a mass of tough sinews and the black hair poking out from under his straw hat was threaded with silver. However, it was impossible to tell how old he was. He did not come across as ungainly like other men of his height – on the contrary, he trod lightly, as if he was a normal size and the others were dwarves. He narrowed his dark blue, almost purple eyes against the sun and hummed some ancient refrain to himself as he went along. He couldn’t quite place it, but he had the feeling it might be a Roman legion’s marching song.

       The man’s name was Rónan and he had been in the world for a very long time.

       A random passer-by wouldn’t have known that Rónan was in a good mood. On looking into his deep-set eyes, people got the impression that this tower of brawn was royally pissed off about something and they had better clear out of his way. For the most part they were right, but when Rónan was in a good mood, he didn’t feel the need to share it with the world in the form of friendly smiles.

       Over the course of his life, his attitude to people had changed. Sometimes he felt like being surrounded by civilization and living in a busy city, but then a time would come when he preferred to build a log cabin in the woods and content himself with the company of his dogs and the forest creatures. He had to admit that since the Industrial Revolution there had been more and more of those times.

       But today he was in a good mood. He had visited the brewery, where he had replenished his supplies (hopefully they would at least last him till the end of the month), and also the mill, where he had bought fresh bread and cakes and – since the miller wasn’t at home – seduced the miller’s wife for good measure. He despised people, but women never ceased to fascinate him.

       All in all, today was a nice day. Too bad it was about to go wrong.

       As soon as the wagon rounded the bend, he saw the man in the distance. The cart was slowly drawing closer to him, but he didn’t budge, standing by a tree like a statue.

       He was a thickset peasant in a black vest and a crooked felt hat. His ruddy face was tense with anger. In his lowered hand he held a stick. His beady eyes were watching Rónan; he was just waiting for him to pass so he could get on with what he was about to do.

       There was a dog tied to a branch of the tree. Its front paws weren’t even touching the ground and it was trembling all over.

       Rónan halted the gelding and dropped the reins.

       “Be on your way,” the peasant said, indicating the direction with the stick.     

       Rónan silently walked up to him with long strides.

       “It’s my dog,” explained the peasant, and for an instant there was a flicker of something like shame in his eyes. However, it was immediately replaced by righteous anger: “So I can do what I like with it!”

       His breath stank of liquor. His name was Gregor and he was on his way back from the neighbouring village, where he had lost ninety Reichsmarks at cards in the pub; his small farm was on the brink of ruin and his country had been occupied by the Germans. Rónan didn’t even have to touch his mind – it all came gushing out of the farmer by itself. That tended to happen when a person was dim-witted and drunk at the same time.

       Gregor had every reason to be upset, but no-one – NO-ONE – was going to take their anger out on a dog.

       Rónan didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest.

       Gregor seized the branch with both hands. “Do you want to –”

       That was as far as he got. A heavy fist landed on his chin. Rónan didn’t pull his punch, putting every one of his twenty stones.

       The farmer fell like a plank. There was a bubbling in his trousers and the air filled with the stench of faeces.

       Rónan went over to the tree, pulled out a knife and cut the dog loose. Its body was covered with recently healed wounds.

       My saviour…

       It was a village mongrel that carried the blood of every possible breed within it.

       My leader…

       He called himself Pinecone and today’s beating was to be his last.

       Pinecone, will you come with me?

2

When a demon dies, it’s a major event. Trees weep dark red sap, werewolves howl on the plains, and livestock whine in their pens as if physically experiencing the departure of their master.

       Dabriel da Raum had lived to the ripe old age of one thousand, nine hundred and sixty and fathered two sons and a daughter, which was a respectable result for a demon. That made the death of both his sons in the caste wars all the more tragic.

       Every demon knows when his time has come, and there were only a few hours remaining to Dabriel. His passing was not accompanied by any pain or fear, only grief and the tears of the trees. He had never been one of the important or wealthy demons, but he was well-liked, so about fifty families from the clan Raum congregated on his farm. They set up camp on the farmland and soon Dabriel’s homestead could barely be seen for the multitude of colourful yurts and fluttering flags.

       The dying demon lay in his bed, which had been carried to the main hall for the occasion. His closest relatives sat wherever they could, quietly talking to one another, drinking beer and nibbling delicacies tastefully served on silver platters from a long table.

       Dabriel opened his eyes and took a rasping breath. His eyes, whose irises had only a hint of flame left in them, looked around. All those present immediately fell silent so they wouldn’t miss any prophecies he might utter with his last breath.

       “Where is Samael?”

       “In the field,” replied Dabriel’s daughter, wiping the sweat from his brow with a damp cloth. “He’s bringing new livestock into the world.”

       “Send for him,” he said barely audibly. “It’s time…”

 

***

 

Grandad was dying, but life on the farm went on. As far as Samael could remember, the poor, stony local soil had never yielded livestock. In the last few years, however, the fertility of the land had increased dramatically worldwide, and now they were even springing up here. Two weeks ago Samael had unearthed a fine specimen. And today there might be another discovery in the offing.

       “Find it, Beastie ,” he urged the tame sand spider. “Find it!”

       Beastie had an exceptional sense of smell and for three days she had been scouring the area between the onion and potato fields. Samael was happy to take charge of the task: he had no intention of sitting idly in the hall waiting for his grandad’s demise, even though – or perhaps precisely because – he was very fond of the old lord.

       Beastie stomped her eight legs, stirring up the red dust. Every now and then she would pause with her head close to the ground and sniff; then her muscular legs would whirl and the spider would run a little way off.

       Most of the farmers used hairy or fanged pigs, but when they dug up livestock they couldn’t resist their flesh. The farmer often had a hard job getting the blood-crazed hog back under control. Then the piece they’d unearthed would be lacerated and it took a long time for it to grow back completely. Large sand spiders were much better – they had almost as good a sense of smell as pigs, and they also began to entangle the livestock in a net as soon as they dug it up instead of tearing straight into it. The drawback was that they didn’t breed in captivity; they had to be tracked down, caught and tamed, which was damned hard work.

       It looked as if Beastie had finally picked up the scent. She began to scrabble furiously in the soft, dark red soil.

       “Clever Beastie!” Samael encouraged her.

       When all that was sticking out of the hole was the spider’s puffy little backside and four rear legs, the screams of the livestock could be heard.

       “Good girl! Fetch, Beastie!”

       The spider was already bracing herself with her back legs and clambering out. In her mandibles she was holding a female: she was scraped all over from the rocks, eyes bulging, waving her arms about and screaming at the top of her lungs. Beastie  expertly wrapped her in a web.

       “Enough, Beastie!” Samael shouted at her, tugging on the leash. He didn’t want to have to cut the newborn female out of a cocoon. “Clever girl,” he praised the spider as she finally released her quarry and lay down on her belly obediently.

       The female was trying to disentangle herself from the web, but when she caught sight of Samael she began to tremble and her mouth, twisted in horror, opened and closed. She let out a bleating which, according to some naturalists from Pandemonium, was the livestock’s way of communicating with each other.

       Females were rare – far fewer of them were born than males. Although they were weaker and had a shorter lifespan, they had other advantages. The tears they shed could be used to make a delicious sauce, and they could also be mated with virtually any domestic animal to bear piglets and demogorgons or to hatch lizard eggs. Samael could try mating her with spiders. Of course, the best thing would be to arrange for the male livestock to copulate with the females, only no-one had figured out how to force the male member to stiffen up.

       The newborn female had white skin, a brown mane and a barely visible aura – just a rippling pinkish atmosphere hovering around her head. The darker the aura, the hardier the livestock and the tastier its meat. Individuals with an almost black, opaque aura were worth millions and were handed down from father to son. This female wouldn’t last long though – two, maybe three years.

       “Samael!”

       By the barn stood his aunt. Her arms were folded across her chest and her head was thrust down between her shoulders. She had always been a sturdy, energetic demoness and now she seemed to have shrunk beneath the weight of grief.

       “He wants to see you.”

       Icy fingers gripped Samael’s heart. He didn’t want to be present for this, but as Grandad’s only heir he had no choice. He involuntarily looked around at the sloping, stony fields. At the rows of onions and potatoes, kohlrabi and squash, the small apple orchard. The barn where two of the livestock were bleating in pain over their master’s departure. Samael would soon become the lord of this meagre kingdom, also burdened with a usurious loan from the Bank of Mammon.

       He’d had other plans in life. The year before last, he had moved to Pandemonium with its million inhabitants. He had successfully passed the entrance exams to Beelzebub University, where he had begun studying mechanical engineering, lived in a dorm and enjoyed student life. And also met his true love.

       After all, wasn’t Lilith the only reason he had settled in the City?

       How was he going to explain to her that he was coming back to the countryside to look after this miserable farm?

       His dad was supposed to have inherited all of this. If only he hadn’t gone and got himself killed in that stupid caste war…

       “Sam! Come on!”

       “I’ll be right there. I’ll just take her away,” he said, motioning at the naked human female. He stroked Beastie on her hairy head: “I know, you want your reward.”

       The spider squirmed impatiently.

       He reached into his canvas bag and pulled out some strips of dried man-flesh.

 

***

 

The hall was full of his grandad’s closest friends. Samael clumsily pushed his way between them, some nodded encouragingly at him and others patted him on the shoulder. The air was heavy, saturated with the smell of beer and the sweet scent of incense.

       He dropped to one knee by the large bed and took hold of his grandfather’s only hand. The old demon’s skin was thin and dry; beneath it he could feel every bone. Samael gave a shuddering sigh and looked the old man in the eyes. They were deeply sunken and their light had almost gone out. The thin skin was stretched tight across his skull and his weak neck looked as if it could no longer bear his heavy horns.

       “Well, boy, this is it,” smiled his grandfather. For a brief moment his eyes lit up again with a warm yellow fire. “As demons are my witness, I bequeath the farm to you…”

       “We are your witnesses,” murmured the crowd.

       Dabriel broke free of his grandson’s grasp, grabbed him by the leather jerkin and drew him close with surprising strength.

       “Do you know where I lost my right hand?” he whispered almost inaudibly.

       Everyone knew that – a lizard had attacked him when he was hunting in the Burbling Bog…

       “In the mountains,” whispered his grandad. “In the Iron Mountains.”

       “But…”

       “Listen.” It was no more than a gasp. “In the floor under the bed… is the key…to my safe.”

       Samael had a thousand questions on the tip of his tongue, but his grandad drew him in so close that their foreheads were touching, his look warning him not to ask anything.

       “Inside is a map… It leads to a treasure beyond your imagination!”

       There was a rustling of fabric and creaking of leather, the sound of shuffling footsteps – the demons were leaning over him in an attempt to catch Dabriel’s last words.

       His grip loosened and the old man’s bony hand fell to the mattress, as light as down. Samael clasped it in his hands again. It was cold. Grandad smiled a little absently, as if he was glad he had unburdened himself of a secret. Suddenly, however, he grew solemn and his eyes widened. For the last time, they flared up with the flame of the living.

       “People are committing evil too great for even the celestial membrane to withstand!” he exclaimed in a resonant voice.

       “A prophecy,” someone whispered.

       Grandad’s eyes darkened and the fire went out of them for good. Dabriel da Raum passed away with a slight smile on his lips. His hand went limp. Suddenly he wasn’t looking into Samael’s eyes but through him. He was gone.

       Samael put his palm on the feeble chest to check for a heartbeat.

       “A demon has left us…” he uttered the sentence expected of him in a strangled voice. “And somewhere he will be born again. Let us live so as to honour his death.”

       He closed his grandad’s sightless eyes. All his willpower was focused on not shedding a tear. He would have been mortified in front of the old warriors from forgotten wars. At first he thought he wouldn’t be able to stand on his shaky legs, but in the end he got to his feet. He took the prepared linen and placed it on the dead demon’s face. His aunt handed him a bowl made out of a human skull. Samael began to spread the plaster on the linen.

       “What did he say?” whispered someone behind his back.

       “Was that supposed to be a prophecy?”

       The dying generally prophesied the harvest of human livestock in the coming seasons; when there would be a drought, flood or plague of locusts. Only some demons from the ancient patrician families predicted something momentous – like the forefather of the current Satan, who had foreseen the caste wars. But prophecies always made sense, and this one of Grandad’s certainly didn’t.

       People committing evil? What kind of nonsense was that? How could they commit evil? After all, they were just mindless animals…

 

3

      

Rónan opened his eyes and instantly regretted it. A sharp beam of sunlight was forcing its way through a crack between the shutters and burning a hole in his head. With his eyes open to the operational minimum, he looked around the room. All that was left of the candles stuck in empty bottles was lumps of melted wax, and the odour of alcohol and love juices hung in the air. The miller’s wife was asleep with her head resting on his chest, her snow-white thigh draped across his waist, her coal-black hair spread out over half the bed. As if she were holding on to him so he wouldn’t run away.

       She blinked sleepily at him and smiled. “Good morning, darling.”

       “You should go,” he said, attempting to free himself from her embrace.

       “You’re such a crosspatch in the morning …” complained Maria, clinging to him even more tightly and purring like a cat. She ran her finger over an old tattoo on his chest. He used to have a lot more of them, but they had all been erased by time.

       “What does it mean?”

       “It’s a Maori tattoo…”

       “Hmm,” purred Maria, as if she knew who the Maori were.

       Rónan had come back from the Pacific at the end of the last century. He had liked New Zealand, but at the end of the day it was a small island that would be hard to escape from if the need arose. And life had taught Rónan that there will always be some institution it’s better to flee from.

       He felt a warm, rough tongue on his hand, which was dangling down to the floor.

       Hello, my friend. He scratched Pinecone behind the ears. The rate of licking intensified. Even though he was over the worst of it, he was still too weak to join the rest of the pack.

       Rónan wrested himself free of Maria’s embrace, scrambled out from under the covers and sat down on the edge of the bed. The roaring in his head changed to a dull ache.

“Honey, go home,” he repeated as gently as he could.

Maria sulkily threw a cover over herself, leaving only her pretty pink bottom sticking out. She muttered something about a lack of tact.

Rónan stood up and fought off the urge to sit right back down again. He opened the door, exposing his naked body to the morning sunlight. The pack came rushing up to give him a frenzied welcome. Their leader, Knuckle – a cross between a Rottweiler and God knows what – pushed his way to the front like an icebreaker to grab the biggest share of the attention.

       The forest stirred with life and smelled of warmth. The birds were worshipping the morning with a frantic clamour, and some of them even called out to him. Rónan walked over to the well and splashed himself with cold water. The miller’s wife appeared in the doorway wrapped in a blanket. One nice full breast peeked out from it.

       “It’s awfully early,” she complained.

       Rónan sighed and dredged up the last vestiges of empathy from somewhere, went back to the log cabin and cupped her face in his hands. She looked up at him with a smile.

       “Your husband’s coming back today. You should have some consideration for him.”

       “I couldn’t care less about him,” she grinned. “I’d like to stay here with you in this cottage of yours.”

       Rónan sighed.

       Should I see her off, Chief? Knuckle was poised for the attack – he understood that there was no call to extend Maria’s stay.

       Rónan glowered at him and the Rottweiler began to root around in the grass as if he hadn’t said anything.

       Maria dropped the blanket and the sun lit up her lily-white skin. She grabbed him down below and began to play with him.

       Rónan just growled. Suddenly he couldn’t think of any sensible arguments.

       She smiled and pressed her soft, fragrant body against him. “Rónan…” she said, rolling his name on her tongue. “I could call my son that someday. Is that a German name?”

       “Celtic,” he sighed, giving in to passion fairly willingly. He liked the saucy young miller’s wife and one more quickie wouldn’t kill him. He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her back towards the bed.

       But after that Maria was going straight back to her own life.

 

***

 

An hour later he was wandering through the bracken, listening to the birdsong. Running around somewhere up ahead were Knuckle and Slobbering God – a Bulldog cross he had found trapped in a poacher’s snare.

       The deep forests were dwindling, even in a seeming wilderness like this one. And according to his mother, there was worse to come. She had the gift of visions; she said that the twentieth century would be filled with blood. But the twenty-first would be even worse – people would wipe out all life on the land and in the seas, multiply uncontrollably and stew under a lid of heavy vapours. Rónan was afraid he would find out first-hand how close to the mark her prophecies were. As far as the twentieth century was concerned, she had been right too often for his liking.

       He had retired to this part of the world in 1914. According to his mother, it was the ancient homeland of his tribe, and it was as good a place as any other. Back then the Great War had been approaching. Rónan had an inkling of what it would be like and had no desire to take part in the slaughter. It was a mystery to him that the politicians didn’t understand what they were rushing into. Some men – no matter how educated they might be – are simply idiots who will persist in making the same mistakes, based on ego and fuelled by testosterone.

       The Great War was bloody, but what was taking place now was a war of extermination. There was a railway line a few miles from his cabin, and even from that distance Rónan could sense the trains passing by. It was as if a storm of horror and despair, of fear and hidden terror, was racing along the track. Where those packed trains were heading he had no idea, but they were accompanied by a cloud of death.

       Somewhere up ahead, Knuckle barked. At the same moment, Rónan felt it. Knuckle barked a second time, urgently. He was calling to him.

       Rónan quickened his pace, even though he was reluctant to do so. The grief he was drawing nearer to hung in the middle of the clearing like a dark, poisonous cloud. Even before he reached the spot, he knew what awaited him there.

       His inner voice advised him to turn around. That this was none of his business… But when had he ever listened to it?

       He stepped into the clearing, where the sunshine hit him. Even from that distance he could hear the buzzing of flies. The two dogs were standing guard. The smell had made Slobbering God frightened and indecisive. He would have liked to run away but didn’t dare to in front of Knuckle. The old Rottweiler cross turned to Rónan: What should we do, Chief?

       Rónan forced his way through the undergrowth, which brushed against his trousers as if it were trying to stop him. A little girl of about three was sitting on the ground, sucking her thumb. Her face was grubby and her gaze apathetic. Her back was leaning against the corpse, which had already turned cold. It was a man. There was a bullet hole in his lower back.

       It’s not your war, boy, he heard the voice of his long-dead mother say. Just leave them to it, let them kill each other off.

       Rónan regarded himself as a cynic, but he couldn’t hold a candle to his mother…

       It’s coming closer, warned Knuckle. The two dogs sniffed the air with their muzzles raised.

       Wait!

       So, what now? The man, evidently the girl’s father, was fleeing with the child in his arms. In the evening he fell from exhaustion and crawled along the flattened bracken for a while longer. In his mind’s eye Rónan saw the little girl scurry up to him, pull him by the jacket and try to help him. She was crying then. Not anymore. She was too weak after a sleepless night.

       In the distance he heard barking.

       Oh, how condescending! Let’s scarper! When Slobbering God was afraid, he resorted to flowery language.

       But it was too late for scarpering. A German Shepherd was racing through the bracken towards them. It stopped six feet away and barked. Rónan’s dogs started to growl.

       Clear off! barked the Alsatian. Riffraff!

       A purebred, sighed Rónan to himself.

       My master is the ruler of the universe! My master…

       Rónan raised his hand and cut this drivel short; the dog whined and lowered its ears. However, it didn’t move from the spot. Slobbering God and Knuckle would happily have launched themselves at it – they hated these jumped-up pedigree types – but Rónan held them back with a gesture of his other hand.

       Two men in camouflage uniforms appeared at the edge of the clearing.

       Rónan squatted down so he could look Rex – as the German Shepherd was called – in the eye.

       I’m the one who rules here, my friend. The dog lowered its muzzle to the ground and began to tremble. You won’t hurt the human pup! You won’t be the tool of your masters. They are weak. They are cowards.

       The soldiers were coming closer, the barrels of their weapons lowered, fingers on the trigger.

       “Is that Yid still breathing?” shouted one of them in German. Rónan had mastered dozens of languages in his lifetime – he had forgotten many of them, but he still knew the Teutonic language well.

       I am the master of life and death, he said, still speaking to Rex. Not them!

       The Alsatian eyed him from the ground. When the soldiers came, he hid behind him with his tail between his legs.

       “What’s up, Rex?” said the dog handler in surprise.

       The men had patches on their collars with a pair of white lightning bolts. The first one was holding a rifle and the second a submachine gun.

       Rónan stood up. They watched warily as he rose to his full height.

       And he examined them. Not only from the outside, but also from the inside. Getting into Private Schmitke’s head was trivial, but with the more intelligent Corporal Eichler it was a bigger challenge.

       Partisan hunters. They had already committed unsavoury acts, been involved in exterminating entire villages… He got all that information out of Schmitke’s head in the space of two seconds. He didn’t yet know what to do with it. It had been a long time since he’d got mixed up in human wars.

       “You shot him,” he said, nodding at the private. It wasn’t a question but a statement.

       Schmitke nodded proudly: “From two hundred feet away!” He was exaggerating, but not much.

       Rónan stopped poking about in his head; he could feel his energy draining rapidly. He hadn’t used the ability to read human minds in a long time, only lightly touched one every now and again, for example when seducing that miller’s wife…

       “What will happen to her?” He pointed at the girl.

       “That’s not your problem,” said Eichler, taking the initiative. He nodded to the private to seize her.

       The little girl would die. It was as clear as the fact that the sun would rise in the morning. And Eichler, who had seen a thing or two in the east, would make sure it was a nasty death.

       Rónan looked at the girl. She was still sucking her thumb, but with the other hand she had caught hold of the tail of her dead father’s jacket.

       Private Schmitke strode through the bracken towards her while the corporal stared up into Rónan’s face with his finger on the trigger.

       He should leave them to it. Let them do what they had to do. It wasn’t his business. The last time he had meddled in the fate of the world (also because of a woman, as it happened), the Inquisition had hunted him through the Saxon woods for days…

       Schmitke slung his rifle over his shoulder and bent down towards the child.

       The little girl ignored him. She watched Rónan with big bright eyes.

       It was his misfortune that he had a weakness for helpless creatures. And though he might not care for people, he still saw children as pure and innocent.

       Eichler was frowning as he watched Rónan. The barrel of the submachine gun rose a fraction.

       Schmitke grabbed the girl by her chubby forearm…

       … and in the end Rónan decided – as he always did – purely intuitively.

       Rex, do you want to live or die?

       The German Shepherd was pretty clear about that. He leapt at Eichler’s throat and the corporal roared in surprise and pain. Schmitke looked round and shouted at the dog.

       But Rex no longer belonged to him. He knocked the corporal to the ground and tore at his throat; the submachine gun hanging from a strap was lodged between the two writhing bodies. Schmitke rushed to help his friend.

       This was going to be difficult. Rónan hadn’t done it in a long time. “Don’t move,” he muttered. He didn’t even have to say it aloud – he already had a firm hold on the reins of the private’s mind.

       Schmitke came to a halt mid-stride. His face turned crimson and the veins stood out on his neck. All he managed to do was move his eyeballs, watching wide-eyed as the corporal was torn apart by his own dog. Then he shot an angry look at Rónan.

       He could feel his strength fading fast. His morning hangover wasn’t helping either. Once he had dragged himself back to the cabin, it would all come pouring out of him and he would spend the rest of the day in the outhouse. Even so, he was seized by a wild exultation. He knew it well. Years ago he could have commanded both men to do somersaults, but now he would be glad if he could handle that blockhead Schmitke. Rex would have to take care of the corporal.

       He knelt beside the girl and took her tiny hands in his. Her name was Amalia. She looked into his eyes and her gaze brightened.

       When will Daddy wake up? A thought as sharp as a razor.

       Rónan lifted her hands and placed them over her ears. “Hold onto your ears and don’t let go.”

       Amalia obeyed. Rónan stood up again and staggered.

       Eichler was still screaming in pain as he tried to pull forty kilos of writhing muscles off himself. Schmitke was trembling and making jerky attempts to move. It didn’t work.

       “Sit down there,” said Rónan, pointing to a tree stump. His voice was drowned out by Eichler’s screaming, but Schmitke could hear him inside his head. Very distinctly and very loudly. The private wanted to protest, but all he managed to do was bare his teeth, foam bubbling between them. In the end his knees gave way and he flopped down onto his bottom.

       Rex finally succeeded in biting through Eichler’s throat. The screaming turned into a gurgling rattle. Schmitke watched it with his eyes bulging, sweat running down his forehead and the veins on his neck pulsing like hoses.

       The corporal finally stopped writhing. Schmitke’s gaze shifted to Rónan. He didn’t understand what was going on, but he begged him for mercy with tear-filled eyes.

       Rónan leaned forward and returned his gaze. His own eyes were as wide and clear as the summer sky. He didn’t have much strength left, but he could hold out a moment longer. It would be worth it.

       “Shoot yourself,” he said softly.

       The soldier jerkily took his rifle off his shoulder and braced the butt against the ground. He was sputtering foam and sweat trickled into his eyes. He slowly directed the barrel towards his face.

       “Open your mouth,” said Rónan gently.

       The private did so and Rónan, without even realizing it, imitated him.

       “Put it in.”

       The barrel began to disappear into the man’s mouth, saliva running down the black metal. Rónan breathed deeply. His heart was beating very slowly, but with a terrible force.

       Schmitke’s contorted fingers began to inch along the rifle butt. As they did so, he howled into the barrel. It looked as if he was trying to play it.

       He hooked his thumb around the trigger.

       “Goodbye.”

       The soldier squeezed the trigger and the top of his head erupted like a volcano.

       Rónan exhaled sharply as if he had just reached orgasm. The world around him grew brighter. Once again he was aware of the green of the woods and the singing of the birds.

       The two dogs watched their master with new respect. Rex licked the blood spurting from the corporal’s throat. He glanced guiltily at Rónan.

       Leave it! Come! Rex trotted up with his red muzzle low to the ground and eyed the two dogs warily. Amalia was still sitting on the ground, her hands covering her ears. Rónan stooped down to this little bundle of grief and picked her up. She seemed terribly heavy. Accompanied by the three dogs, he set off home. His legs felt like rubber.

       Why did you do that? Do you realize what you’ve set in motion?

       Rónan swatted these questions away like an annoying fly. He had a pretty clear idea of what he had done and what it might set in motion. More Germans would turn up and start combing the woods. They might even force him to up-anchor. It wouldn’t be the first time. But so far he didn’t regret it; so far he felt as if he had woken up after a long hibernation.

       He looked at the little girl being bounced around in his arms. She returned his gaze. She reached out and touched his weather-beaten face curiously.

       You women – you can always be relied on to get me into trouble…

       The power he had awakened warmed him like a stove. Yes, it was time to get involved in the affairs of the world again, to flex his stiff muscles and have himself a little adventure.

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