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Freischütz Reloaded

Chapter Text

A village, mid-1650s

 

Again, I have missed every time. With the entire village present, I gloriously missed the wooden star three times. Oh for the shame! Herr Kuno will not be pleased – and I let my comrades down who rooted for me. Worse: I let Agathe down – she hoped so much for a good sign for the trial shot tomorrow –

Oh for a farmer beating me in the shooting contest! Kilian – how he is gloating, basking in his success! No doubt, he shoots well – for a farmer.

I should leave – the joy and happiness are grating on my nerves – what is this? They form a parade, Kilian in front, Sepherl with the target, and all the others behind them – mocking me –

I hear a scream, a roar as if from a wounded animal – pain and rage – and when I come to, Kilian, the peacock, lies on the ground in front of me, bleeding from his mouth and nose, and strong arms are holding me back – Herr Kuno and Kaspar, who whispers “quiet, boy, quiet” – just as he did when we – No, no, I must not think of this. It’s over, over for all eternity – and yet, his words still have the same calming effect … He spoke to me – I never thought he would speak to me again.

Herr Kuno and my comrades arrived just at the right moment. I do not dare to think what else I would have done to Kilian, making myself even more unhappy. As it is, I haven’t even broken his nose and he still has his front teeth. Good for him. And for me.

Slowly, I calm down. Kilian is still up to waving his success and my failure under Herr Kuno’s nose, but all anger has suddenly left me. I merely feel sad – and tired, as if I had followed the trail of a wild boar all night. Yes, I have to confess that, again, I missed every time I did a shot. Herr Kuno relieved me of my duties at the Prince’s hunting lodge so I could attend the shooting contest, and again, I let him down. As was to be expected, he is not pleased, but behind his words I hear his worry about me. As if I wasn’t worried enough myself – not a feather to bring home in over a month, when I was accustomed to hardly miss my prey! There is nothing wrong with my eyes, my hands do not tremble; I clean and maintain my rifle as any good huntsman does – as I always did – and yet, I miss every time!

“Someone has bespelled you, and you must break that spell,” Kaspar whispers in my ear. Again, he speaks to me. Not a word in four months – why now? Herr Kuno has overheard his whisper and rebukes him sharply. Kaspar steps away from me, and I am relieved. And yet, I miss the familiar feeling of him being close to me – his smell of sweat, of earth, of gun oil, of the animals he hunts and their blood, of the forest itself. I still miss his knowing, cunning hands, his strength, feeling his body under my hands –

He looks straight at me for the first time in four months – the eyes of a lynx in a tanned face; a light green with a hint of yellow – no, no, no, I must not think of him, I must think of Agathe, the beautiful, lovely girl I will marry tomorrow – if all goes well. But what if things will not go well, what if Kaspar is right? What if someone has bespelled me?

Hans, God bless his soul, asks about the trial shot I will have to do tomorrow, and the farmers are eager to hear a good yarn. I know the story of course, but Herr Kuno is only too happy to tell it again: One of his ancestors, also Kuno by name, was one of the then reigning Prince’s bodyguards. One day when hunting out in the forest, the party discovered a deer with a man chained to its back – a poacher, caught and punished. The Prince must have had second thoughts about the punishment, because he told his men that the one who would shoot the deer without hurting the man would get the position of a forester and princely gamekeeper. Herr Kuno’s ancestor did the shot – the deer fell, and the poacher was unharmed. But of course, there were people who envied the brave bodyguard his new position. They told the Prince that Kuno had used black magic – enchanted bullets, made at night in an ill-reputed place, with the help of the Devil himself.

“Enchanted bullets!” one of the farmers exclaims. “The last one –“ he pauses for effect – “the last one is said to belong to the Devil himself! He can lead it wherever he wants!”

“Fairy tales!” Herr Kuno reproaches him. “So the Prince gave my ancestor his own rifle,” he continues, “loaded with one of his own bullets, and ordered him to shoot another time.” Again, Kuno hit his mark and thus proved his innocence and his true prowess. From this time on, all of Kuno’s descendants have to do a trial shot in the presence and on the order of the reigning Prince to prove their marksmanship.”

And tomorrow it will be me, luckless Max’s, turn, as I want to marry Agathe, Herr Kuno’s only child.

Oh, if the story of the enchanted bullets were more than a mere tale! My soul is lost anyway, through my unholy union with Kaspar – but if I had the chance to win Agathe, I could do something good, sire children, become a good father and a good servant to the Prince … Everything, everything would be better than this darkness that has befallen me since I ended my relationship with Kaspar and even more since I miss with every shot I do …

After admonishing me one last time, Herr Kuno leaves again with his hunters, Kaspar among them – Kaspar, strong and yet lithe, cunning, clever, knowing; teaching me everything a good huntsman should know, the patience of waiting, the cold blood in a fight with a wounded boar or bear, the sureness of a good marksman – and what is more: he gave a name to the pain and longing in my body, the strange thoughts about being attracted not to girls, but to other men. Kaspar knew, and he taught me – his mouth, his hands, his body joining with mine, bringing me sweet pain, satiating my hunger, slaking my thirst. And yet – is it not a sin for a man to be with another man? To spill my seed where no new life will spring from it? Aren’t we damned into the deepest of hells for what we did?

Kaspar always laughed at my worries.

“Mother Nature has room for more things than we can dream of. Before I came here, I’ve been around in the whole country. As they told me, my family was killed in the War. I was barely old enough to walk, and a woman who ran with the soldiers took me with her. So I became a soldier when I was a mere boy. You learn to survive, to plunder, to steal from rotting corpses – enough! I’ve seen a lot of things and met a lot of strange men. Many saw as much as I did and yet learned nothing. But I met one man and was with him for a while. He could not only read - long, clever books at that – he also wrote them! He told me about countries in which people live whose skin is all black. It is so hot there that they do not wear much clothing, if any at all. And yet – if there’s a God, aren’t they his creatures as well as we are?”

I could not say anything against his words, and he went on.

“That man also told me about another country called Greece. Many, many years ago, the people of Greece were a very clever people. They had many books and scriptures and they built huge buildings, churches and town halls, palaces for their princes, as beautiful as ours, but different. And to them, those learned men, it was no shame to lie with another man. Even their Gods themselves did this!”

“They were heathens, then,” I threw in.

“Maybe,” Kaspar nodded. “But they were learned and clever and brave soldiers as well. The ruins of their houses are still in Greece, the man told me. He had books some of the men of Greece had written.”

I was doubtful. “What if he lied to you, made all this up?”

Kaspar laughed again.

“They were the rulers of the world! And that man did not lie to me. I saw the books myself. – And so what: With what we do, we do not harm anyone. A man who beats his wife and children should be called more of a sinner than we, because he hurts others!”

Oh, this is Kaspar alright – he has a quick head and a clever tongue, too. So he often managed to quell my doubts and worries. Never for long, however. Why, then, did the Bible, God’s word, speak so differently about men lying with men? And is it not against all nature not to beget new life when giving up your seed? I tried to find answers in my head, but I failed. And even if Kaspar was right – what good would it be to be right if everybody else around you would think you were wrong? Yes, I feared to become an outcast, despised, hated. I have been born here, I know many people here since my childhood – how could I look into their faces again, had I gone on with my sinful relationship to Kaspar?

Things are easier for him. He came from afar, he had been around, seen the world. He could leave again, leave everything behind, if necessary. I, however, can not.

I thought about my dilemma for a long time. I prayed to God for an answer. What was right – what wrong? And I believe that God answered my prayers. When I got up from the bench, bowed my knee before the man on the cross, wiped my face and turned to leave, a ray of sun fell through the coloured glass window on a blonde head. The girl looked up. It was Agathe, Herr Kuno’s daughter. Blue eyes looking into mine, innocent, friendly. She smiled at me before she bowed her head again in silent prayer.

I met her more and more often from then on. When we were working in the forest, she brought her father food; when I brought a deer or a boar to Herr Kuno’s house, she was there, greeting me with a drink of fresh water and some bread and cheese, smiling, obviously glad to see me. And I, too, began to look forward to our encounters.

Agathe’s presence is as soothing as a cool breeze on a sweltering summer day. She radiates a calm, inner strength I feel sorely lacking in me. In a way I cannot name I feel understood by her. Of course not in regard to – that - how could she understand what I did? She doesn’t even know such a thing exists.

And here is my dilemma: Am I not lying to her and to myself? Seeing Agathe as an answer to my prayers for relief is easier said than done. In wooing her, proposing to her, am I not going against the core of my rotten nature, besmirching her as well? But then – is – that truly my nature? What if marrying Agathe could really save me from myself, from this uncouth error of my ways? Is it the right thing to do? And yet, my way out is barred by my own ineptitude … If my bad streak of luck continues tomorrow, all is lost anyway …

I dread tomorrow as I have never dreaded a day before. Herr Kuno has given me leave, so I can see Agathe again before tomorrow, but I also dread coming to her with empty hands. How loving and proud she looks at me when I bring a deer, a boar, or a fox to her father’s house, although there is always a hint of pity for the slaughtered animal in her eyes, too. And I could love her just for this …

But am I worthy at all to make her my wife? How could I, accustomed to the rough caresses and kisses of a man, touch her tender body? How could I love her, when my heart is given, although my body no longer? Maybe I can forget Kaspar, maybe I will learn to love Agathe with my heart and body, as she deserves to be loved … This is my only hope.

I should go. Agathe will be waiting for me already, although I will come with empty hands again.

Will I succeed tomorrow? The shooting contest was a bad omen. Heaven seems to have forsaken me for my sin, and the way to repent, to make everything right, seems to be blocked … Is there only damnation and despair left for me?

A hand on my shoulder. I flinch, jump up, and look into Kaspar’s face. I do not know whether I should be glad to see him or whether he is the last person I want to see now.

“What do you want, creeping up on me like this?! Leave me alone!”

Kaspar steps back, lifting his hands in a calming gesture.

“I don’t like that the farmers have mocked you,” he says. “They must have had a good laugh!”

“Leave me alone! Don’t you mock me as well! I’ve had enough of this!” I fend him off weakly, but his hand rests on my shoulder again, I feel him breathing down my neck. I feel so exhausted and weary; even if Kaspar would offer me to lie with him now, I doubt I would be able to.

He turns me around. His eyes are inscrutable. They have been like this since the day I sought him out in his room at the hunters’ lodge to tell him I had proposed to Agathe and things between him and me must end. He must have guessed then that I hadn’t come with good news. His look had been wary before, but at this moment his face closed up, devoid of all expression. I could feel an invisible wall rise up between us.

I would have preferred him angry, abusing me, hitting me in the face, shoving me out of his room. His cold, calm silence frightened me, as did the sudden emptiness in his eyes. Secretly I had hoped he would not take our breakup so badly. Surely he must have had other men leave him or must have left other lovers himself. I had known he would be hurt, and I was sorry for him – but I had not reckoned on this calm, cold emptiness …

Since that day, he had not acknowledged me by as much as a glance. Until now.

It has become almost dark meanwhile, and the farmers have gone to the village inn to celebrate and dance.

What is he playing at? He takes a bottle of wine from his knapsack, uncorks it and holds it out to me. I do not want to drink, but today is the first day he’s been friendly to me since our breakup, a sign maybe that he is coming to terms with how things went between us; so I do not want to offend him. – Christian once told me to stay away from Kaspar. Herr Kuno called him a good-for-nothing once, and Friedrich said something like it would not be a good thing to have Kaspar as your enemy. What did they mean? What do they know? Do I not know Kaspar better?

Be this as it may, I take the offered bottle from his hand and drink. Sure, the Kaspar before me is still distant, not the Kaspar I used to know. He has drunk already, his breath smells of schnapps. I wish he would not give out toasts to the health of Herr Kuno, let alone to Agathe. Maybe to the health of our Prince, yes. But even less do I like the raucous song he sings, about gambling and whoring. He is mocking me!

I throw the empty bottle aside and want to leave, but he holds me back.

“When you’re a soldier among soldiers, and you don’t know what the next day will bring, you learn such ditties,” he says.

“Fine, then. But leave me alone now!” My tone is harsh; I try to free myself, but he remains unperturbed, knowing that his grip on my arm is not completely unwelcome.

“Maybe I could help you,” he says, slowly, thoughtfully. “What if I could help you hit your mark again, securing your luck and Agathe’s hand?”

What – what does he say? What is he up to? My eyes search his face. The impassive mask is still firmly in its place, and his eyes have the piercing look of a hawk or an eagle which has spotted its prey and will take wing this instant … I do not know what to make of his offer. Why does he want to help secure my union with the girl for whom I left his side? I love him, yes, but I do not see him as this noble … or should I be mistaken? Is he just basking in my despair, enjoying his revenge? Or does he actually want to help?

But will not a drowning man, carried away by the raging floods of a mountain stream, grab at every twig or tree branch, however weak and thin it may be; will he not cling to every rock, slippery as it may be, to drag himself out of the foaming water, pulling him to his death?

My lips are numb; they hardly obey me to form the words when I answer Kaspar.

“You ask so strangely –“

“Look!” he shouts, suddenly agitated, pointing at the sky. “Take my rifle! Do you see the bird?”

Yes, I see the bird in the last light of day. High up in the sky it flies, much higher than any bullet from a man-made rifle could reach.

“It’s too high up in the clouds,” I answer, and try to step away from Kaspar, who roughly shoves his rifle into my hands.

“Shoot!”

My hands holding Kaspar’s rifle, my arms lifting it up, my finger pulling the trigger – they don’t seem to belong to me. It is as if someone else moves them – the shot rings out, the mountains resound its echo – and then an enormous mountain eagle, the biggest I have ever seen, falls from the sky like a stone, lies dead at my feet.

Kaspar beats me on the shoulder.

“What a giant mountain eagle! What a shot! Now you can look into Agathe’s beautiful eyes again without shame!” He bends down and tears a few feathers off the dead bird’s wings.

“Here, give her these feathers as a sign of your victory!”

I stand numbly; let Kaspar push the feathers behind the band round my hat. An eagle, high over the reach of any shot, has just fallen to earth, hit by a bullet from Kaspar’s rifle. My thoughts are racing – if this is possible, maybe I can hit my prey again – I can do the trial shot and marry Agathe, repent for my sins. But how did this come to pass?

Finally, my lips form words. My voice hardly obeys me.

“With what did you load your rifle?” I hear myself whisper hoarsely.

The beautiful lynx eyes take on a quizzical look.

“Are you this innocent or do you just pretend?”

“What kind of bullet was this?!”

“What do you think? How did the marksmen in the thickest cannon smoke manage in the War?”

I grab the front of his shirt. “Kaspar, I’ll kill you!”

For a moment, he presses his hard body to mine; I can feel his erection, see his beckoning smile – before he takes my hands away with an iron grip, pushes me backwards.

“Do you actually want to tell me that you don’t know what an enchanted bullet is?”

My head reels. So these bullets exist! And probably the rumour was true – Herr Kuno’s ancestor used an enchanted bullet to shoot the deer without hurting the poacher … but how did he succeed in the second test, with the Prince’s own rifle, if not by his own marksmanship? Or did he use sorcery again? Another kind of sorcery?

My thoughts race. Yes, using sorcery for tomorrow’s shot will be another sin, but then I will be saved. I will repent. I will give to the poor, go to mass every day, will be a good husband and a good father to my future children, a good servant to the Prince …

“Do you have more of these lucky bullets?” I hear myself ask.

To my horror and frustration, Kaspar shakes his head.

“No. But they can be made tonight. The sun has stood in Sagittarius for three days, and tonight the moon will be darkened.”

“Then get me such a bullet!” Again, I grab for Kaspar, and again, he pushes me away – this time without teasing me with his body.

“I will teach you,” he answers patiently. “In Wolf’s Glen. At midnight.”

A cold hand grabs my heart. Maybe the price to wipe out my sin will be paid by an even greater sin – and this price may be too high … Wolf’s Glen is said to be a direct entrance to Hell, the souls of the damned shall haunt it; the Wild Hunt will chase an unsuspecting nightly wanderer into the abyss to his death, demons of all kinds roam freely there, and even the Devil himself, with tail and horns, has been seen … Some things may be true, some merely old wives’ tales – however – it would be an act of trying God’s patience to go there.

“Wolf’s Glen is haunted.”

“I will help you make the bullets.”

“No, not even then!”

I turn to go, but Kaspar blocks my way. This time, it is he who grabs me by the shoulders.

“You know that if you will fail tomorrow, men from all the Prince’s lands will be witnesses? You will not only lose Agathe and Herr Kuno’s heritage, but you will also be the laughing stock of the people wherever you go. Wherever you are, you will be known as the man who always missed his target. Think of how sad Agathe will be! She cannot live without you!”

As much as I wish he wouldn’t be, Kaspar is right. Agathe’s disappointment and unhappiness – that’s the price that is too high …

“By Agathe’s life – I’ll be there. At midnight!”

*****

Darkness has fallen, and I hurry to Herr Kuno’s house to see Agathe as promised, to show her the feathers of my prey, the giant mountain eagle.

Agathe has waited eagerly for me. Lately, she must have been worried a lot about our future together, and I have given her reason to be, missing at every shot …

I am glad she is not alone. Ännchen, her cousin, is with her.

Happily, Agathe flies into my arms. Both girls are excited and glad to see me.

“What did you hit? What did you win?” they ask immediately. They know I intended to participate in the shooting contest, know that Herr Kuno has given me leave to attend.

“Me? – I – I haven’t been at the shooting contest at all,” I lie. “But look – I got the biggest eagle from the sky!”

I throw my hat, crowned with the eagle feathers, onto the table, and I am disappointed to see Agathe flinch back.

Only then I notice the bandage round her forehead. Ännchen tells me that the frame of a picture hit her when it fell from the wall, hurting her.

“Ancestor Kuno’s picture – the clock had just struck seven!”

“The clock had just struck seven …” I repeat numbly. The clock from the nearby church had just struck seven when I shot the eagle from the sky with Kaspar’s rifle … A coincidence?

“What is the matter with you?” Agathe asks.

I am glad that the heavy frame hasn’t done any serious harm, but, sorry to say, the whole situation jars my temper – their eager questions, having to tell a lie not to disappoint them – and what I will have to do in Wolf’s Glen at midnight lies heavily on my soul. Would it not mean my and eventually Agathe’s doom, I would not go. But then, I gave my word.

“What is it?” Agathe repeats.

“Nothing!” I snap at her, “only that I bring you a token of my returning luck, and you – you don’t even seem to be happy!”

I need not see the sadness in her eyes to regret my harsh words as soon as they have left my mouth. On the evening before our wedding I hurt this woman who will save me, and I am not worthy to walk on the same ground she walks on.

“Forgive me,” I say quickly. “It has been a long day with all the preparations for the hunting party. Your father gave me leave to see you before tomorrow, and I have nothing better to do than to reproach you! I am sorry!”

Agathe, the good soul, smiles at me, while Ännchen is still frowning.

“I just was worried, because you are so different. As if something were on your mind that ails you, although you did such a lucky shot.”

Am I actually behaving that differently towards her? I have never been a good liar. The teacher at the village school always found out whether we boys had played a prank, just by looking at me … Carefree times those were …

“There is nothing,” I answer, “But I must leave again. – I – have been lucky a second time. A capital deer. I must get it to the hunters’ lodge before the farmers steal it at night.”

Another lie – one a hunter’s daughter will understand. How often has Herr Kuno sent Kaspar and me out in the evening again, to save a bear’s, deer’s or boar’s carcass from the two- or four-legged scavengers –

Ännchen, however, is not so easily to placate. She seems still angry with me for hurting Agathe, and gives me a sharp look.

“Where did you shoot the deer?” she asks.

“Far away,” I answer. “Near Wolf’s Glen.”

I should have known that now I have frightened Agathe even more. Even hunters avoid the area around Wolf’s Glen and the Glen itself by day, let alone by night. Agathe beseeches me not to go, but I insist that it is my duty, and finally she relents.

With a lot of good wishes I finally am on my way again – with a heavy heart.

*****

Wolf’s Glen – a dark abyss like a gate to Hell. A weather is coming. Dark clouds hide the moon. Mist is forming ghostly shapes; the rocks look as if they were alive; rustling from the underbrush, probably an owl hunting. The branches of a tree form a shape like a giant hand, ready to grab me. I feel a shudder in my heart, but the mockery of the farmers still rings in my ears. I must go down. I must defy all horrors. I shot the mountain eagle with an enchanted bullet, I cannot go back now …

I can see a light deep down in the gorge. Kaspar must have lit a fire. For a moment, I think that everything is a lie, that Kaspar has just asked me to come here to see me again, to lie with me one last time, even against my will – but it would not even be against my will …

Kaspar has seen me and motions to me to hurry up, but I stop on the narrow, slippery, steep path down and cannot go one step further.

“Come on! Time is running out!” Kaspar calls up to me.

“I cannot come down!”

“Coward! Usually, you climb like a mountain goat!”

He is right, but my path down is blocked.

A shape has manifested before me.

“I see my mother as she lay in her coffin, as she rests in her grave – she looks at me imploringly, waves me back …”

Kaspar’s laughter echoes hollowly from the glen.

“Look again,” he shouts upward, “look again, so you can see what will happen if you behave like a stupid coward!”

My eyes follow his outstretched arm –

And yes – it is not my mother’s ghost I see before me, but Agathe, her clothes torn, her hair dishevelled, her eyes wild, running down the path to the waterfall – in madness ending her own life -

“Agathe, she’ll jump into the water!”

I must go down, there is no other way. I fly down the rest of the path and stumble to a halt next to Kaspar at the fire.

“Here I am. What do I have to do?”

“Drink first. The night is cold and wet.” Kaspar offers me a flask I take gratefully.

Round the fire, he has laid out a ring of stones.

“Stay out of this ring,” he orders. “Keep quiet. – It is not without resistance that hidden nature gives up its secrets to the mortals. Only if you should see me in trouble, come to my aid and call what you’ll hear me call – otherwise we’ll both be lost!”

I suppress a shudder. I should have thought before about the dark forces that will be involved. But what can I do? I have no choice, cannot go back …

“How will this end?”

Kaspar ignores me. Into the cauldron over the fire he puts some strange ingredients: the right eye of a hoopoe, the left one of a lynx, splinters of coloured glass – from broken church windows, he says – then the lead and three bullets which have hit their mark before.

“And now – the blessing for the bullets,” he says.

“Marksman, who holds watch in the darkness,
Samiel, Samiel, hear me!
Stand by me tonight
Until my magic is finished.
Bless for me the herbs and lead,
Bless them seven, nine, and three,
To make the bullets powerful.
Samiel, Samiel, appear!”

Had someone told me what would happen now, I wouldn’t have believed him.

Kaspar pours the lead for the first bullet into the mould, cools it, casts out the bullet.

“One!” he counts loudly, the echo throwing the sound of his voice around in the glen.

Wings brush the hair on my head, when a strange bird-creature lands at the stone circle; another follows, then a third. Are these owls? Their flight is silent, sweeping, but they look more like crows or ravens, although they are huge –

Be it as it may, they take wing and vanish into the night.

Unfazed, Kaspar counts: “Two.”

A giant boar breaks from the bushes behind us, runs past the fire. I reach for my rifle, but the boar has already vanished into the underbrush.

“Three!”

A wind arises, tears branches from the trees, rustles up old leaves, blows sparks from the fire.

Hastily, Kaspar counts on: “Four!”

A rattle as if from a coach, the crack of a whip, I see the shape of a coach roll towards us, its wheels spraying sparks; the horses seem to be shaped of mist, as is the coachman. I want to evade the trampling hooves, the crushing wheels, but there is no room to jump aside, and the coach passes right through me! I hear a hollow laughter from the ghostly coachman, the crack of his whip over the horses’ backs, feel the breath from their nostrils – it is as cold as ice.

“Five!” Kaspar shouts.

I hear a pack of dogs howl and bark, the whinnying of horses, the sound of horns – not joyful and exciting, calling to the hunt, but muffled, eerie – the sound makes me shudder. In this hunt, I have no part. – I see the misty shapes of stags and boars – and other creatures, which seem shaped strangely … They are followed by shady, ghost-like dogs and hunters, on foot and on horseback, and some of them look strange as well – distorted, disfigured …

“Woe!” Kaspar exclaims. “The Savage Hunt! Six! Woe!”

The heavy wind becomes a storm, which throws torrential gusts of rain and sleets of hail at us. I am thrown to earth and crawl to a big rock for shelter, but a tree, torn from its roots, crashing down next to me, drives me back, rocks are loosened and fall into the glen, drop into the foaming water of the creek at the foot of the waterfall. The whole ground beneath me seems to shake –

The embers of the fire are blown in all directions; Kaspar protects his face from the flying sparks, but he is standing upright in the stone circle, before an enormous gust of wind throws him off his feet. He crawls to the fire and pours the lead for the last bullet.

“Samiel!” he shouts. “Help! Seven!” Again, he is thrown to the ground.

“Samiel!” I shout, grab the mould that has fallen from Kaspar’s hand and let the last bullet drop free –

Kaspar is bleeding from a gash in his forehead, he seems unconscious – I think I heard a voice in my head say “I am here!” – then everything around me goes black …

*****

I awake at dawn to what promises to become a beautiful day. The warming sun is coming up, shining through the branches of a broken tree, the birds are singing, and the creek is bubbling along merrily, as if it had never raged in its bed in foaming torrents, uprooting trees in its wake. Were it not for the fallen trees, their broken branches and splintered trunks everywhere, one would hardly believe that a thunderstorm and winds with gale force had raged only a few hours before. This morning, even Wolf’s Glen looks peaceful, bathed in the golden sunlight.

Kaspar is lying next to me, his hair matted with blood, but the gash in his forehead has stopped bleeding. His eyes are still closed. Worried, I push the matted hair away from his face, when he opens his eyes.

“Are you well?” I ask. He sits up, moves his arms and legs, stands and walks to the creek, still a bit unsteady, washes his face and hands, feels the gash in his forehead.

“I’m alright.”

The apparitions of the night come to my mind, and I shudder. Whom did I call last night, repeating Kaspar’s words?

“The Savage Hunt – “I begin hesitantly, “did you see them as well? – And there was someone you called –“

A rough kiss seals my lips. Kaspar has come back from the creek, undresses brusquely, pushes me onto my back and sits on me, pinning me to the ground by my wrists.

“Kaspar, no –“ I moan, but my protest is half-hearted, and he knows. One last time, I feel sweet agony, as Kaspar pushes into me, until my seed splatters onto my stomach. Kaspar scoops it up with his hand, drawing a pattern on my chest. For the last time, I stroke his hips, his buttocks, his chest. His lynx eyes gleam wildly and inscrutably, his last kiss, more a bite, tastes of blood. - Lord, oh Lord, what am I doing?

Then, abruptly, Kaspar withdraws from me, walks to the place where he had lit the fire, takes something up and presses it into my hand: Four bullets that will not miss their mark…

“Now hurry,” he says. “Off with you to the Princely lodge! Do the trial shot and win the hand of your girl!”

He dresses quickly, takes his rifle and hurries away, without so much as a further look at me. I have no choice but to follow. It is time.

Then, I had no idea what his plans were. And yet, with everything I know now, my feelings for him have not changed. Am I insane? I must be. But then, I didn’t know a thing. With his seed still in me, mine sticky on my chest and stomach, I went to win my bride – and yet I knew already that I would never forget Kaspar.

*****

My comrades are already waiting at the hunters’ lodge. Soon, the Prince and his bodyguards arrive; then, one by one, the noble guests. The weather is fine, fitting for a hunting party.

Herr Kuno presents me as the suitor for his daughter’s hand and his successor-to-be, and the Prince graciously deigns to look at me with interest and nods when I take off my hat and bow. I know that I am under scrutiny, but strangely, I am less nervous when the hunt begins. I do three shots which astonish the whole hunting party and which are favourably noticed by the Prince. One kills a capital boar, which threatened to attack one of the young noblemen who had not jumped fast enough out of its way; the second one takes down a beautiful stag, and the third one another eagle from the sky.

Now I have one enchanted bullet left, which I intend to take for the trial shot. But what if the Prince or one of the other noblemen wants another proof of my marksmanship? I’d have to load my rifle with a regular bullet, and what if I missed? There is no other way – as much as I loathe doing so, I must seek out Kaspar and ask him to give me another one of the magic bullets – just one. I hope he has one left …

As I thought, Kaspar is not happy when I ask him.

“I took three – you got four,” he says. “I think that’s a fair enough share for you.” Gone is the Kaspar wishing me luck – he seems to have exhausted his patience and generosity. But I need another bullet!

“I know,” I thus answer. “Three times I hit my mark – three amazing shots. Just one more of the bullets, to be on the safe side. – Have you left one? What did you shoot?”

“Two magpies,” Kaspar answers, grinning.

“Are you mad?!” I hiss at him. Under risk for life and limb, we made these bullets together, and he wastes them on magpies! I would have said more, but a princely bodyguard approaches us.

“The Prince wants to see you immediately. There is a debate about how far away a mark can be for your rifle to hit it.”

“I’ll come at once,” I answer. I implore Kaspar to give me his last bullet, but he remains unmoved.

“You’ve got one left, I’ve got one left. Save yours for the trial shot!”

“For the last time – I beg of you, Kaspar: Give me your third bullet!”

He shakes his head, his face as cold and hard as on that day when I told him Agathe had accepted my proposal.

“And if you fell down on your knees before me – the answer is no!”

“You bastard!” Outraged, I leave him – and hear a shot ring out a minute later. What did he shoot now? Another magpie? Little did I know then why he had wasted his last bullet, too. After what had happened yesterday, I thought that despite I would no longer lie with him, we still would remain friends. He made the enchanted bullets with me; so I thought he wanted to help me. Instead, he refuses to give me his last bullet when he has already wasted the first two. I don’t understand why he’s behaving like this, but I have no time to think about him further.

Thankfully, when I arrive at the Princely pavilion, the debate about my rifle has been settled already.

Now the feast begins. Everybody, from the Prince himself to the last footman, shows a good appetite. I can hardly bring myself to eating a few morsels of bread and a piece of cold meat, and I drink just one glass of wine. I want to be clear-headed for the trial shot. My rifle is already loaded with my last enchanted bullet.

The feast seems to last unbearably long, but finally the Prince gets up.

“Enough of the joys of feasting, my friends and hunting comrades! – Brave Kuno, I like your future son-in-law.”

Herr Kuno assures the Prince that I will always be eager to prove worthy of his grace.

“I hope so,” the Prince answers jovially. “But where is the bride?”

Herr Kuno bends closely to the Prince. I overhear him say: “If it pleases you, Your Grace, let him do the trial shot before the girl arrives. Her presence might confuse him.”

The Prince roars with laughter, and all his guests follow suit.

“He seems to be not cold-blooded enough!”

The laughter may be good-natured, but it rings cruelly in my ears.

“Who knows – haven’t we been nervous, too, on our wedding days, my old friend?” His Grace asks, and then he turns to me.

“Well, young huntsman – another shot like the three you did this morning, and you’ll have secured your luck. Now, let me see – the white dove over there – shoot!”

//That’s easy,// I think. I take aim, shoot – and at the same time Agathe’s voice yells “No! the dove! Don’t shoot!”

Everything happens at once. Agathe rushes towards me, right into the bullet’s trajectory, and I see movement in the tree to which the dove has flown. Agathe sinks down, and at the same time, a hunter falls out of the tree – Kaspar.

No, this cannot be – my bullet cannot have hit two people! There is a general uproar, and everybody rushes to the spot where Agathe has fallen down in her bridal attire, a broken white flower on the dark ground.

Shock and horror rivet me to the spot.

“Look, look!” a few women cry, “He shot his own bride!”

“The huntsman fell from the tree!” others shout.

There are screams and cries, people run to and fro like chickens in a pen when the fox is creeping around outside.

How can this be? My bullet should not have missed its mark, which was the white dove! How could I hit Agathe and at the same time Kaspar? I used the last of the enchanted bullets – and suddenly I remember … the old farmer – when Herr Kuno told the story of his ancestor – he threw in that the last enchanted bullet – the seventh – belongs to the Devil! Is it true? Kaspar would have known. Did he betray me, actually intend for me to shoot Agathe? But why has he fallen down, then, too? It feels like a terrible nightmare. Oh my Lord, my Lord, what have I done?!

Another outcry from the women around Agathe. She tries to sit up, looks around, as if in a haze. She lives! The terrible shock that has paralyzed me lifts; I rush to her and take her into my arms.

“She’s alive!” Herr Kuno cries out, and “Calm down, my dear, calm down,” Ännchen tells her friend, cooling her forehead with a wet cloth.

“All hallows praise and thanks!” some people shout. Others point to Kaspar.

“He’s been hit! He’s bleeding!”

Kaspar tries to get up and fails. Falling back onto his knees, he grabs his chest. Blood runs over his fingers. When he lifts his head, his face shows surprise, before he doubles over in pain. In agony, he looks up again. His lips form words, but no sound comes out. He coughs up blood. Why does no one help him, why are they all watching him with fascinated horror? Why do I not help him?

He is speaking to someone only he can see.

“Already, Samiel? – So – that’s how you kept your promise? – Take me – to hell then. – Curse – Heaven – and you!”

He coughs and doubles over again. His eyes fall on me. My God, he’s crawling towards me, extending a bloodied hand!

“F – forg –“

He falls forward and moves no more.

“Ha! This was his prayer in dying?” a few women round Agathe call out.

Herr Kuno rallies first.

“He has always been an evil man. Heaven has punished him,” he says.

Others agree. “He cursed Heaven! Didn’t you hear, he called the Evil One!”

The Prince, too, finds his voice.

“Away, throw the monster into Wolf’s Glen!”

Numbly, I see how Hans and Friedrich turn around Kaspar’s body. His eyes, wide open, stare unseeing at the sky. They grab his arms and legs, drag him away – my love … in league with the Devil, out to destroy me! To my shame, I must admit I am trembling from head to foot like a fearful child.

Agathe is lead aside and given a seat at the table. Herr Kuno, Ännchen and the bridesmaids are all around her.

The Prince turns to me.

“What has been going on?” he demands harshly. “It seems to me that you have been involved in evil machinations. And if you don’t confess and explain everything, I will have ways and means to make you confess!”

Oh, I am ready to confess. The whole atrocity I’ve been part of, the scale of Kaspar’s betrayal, hit me with full force. My legs won’t support me any longer. I fall to my knees.

“Sir, I am unworthy of your mercy,” I stammer. “Out of despair, I let myself be lured away from the righteous path. The four bullets from my rifle have been enchanted. I made them with – the dead man. Too late I realized that the seventh bullet was consecrated to the Devil.”

I know that I condemn myself with this confession. I do not even think, then, that they might burn me at the stake as a sorcerer for what I have done.

There is a commotion, and many of the people I have known from childhood look at me as if I was a stranger, as if I was a monster. And they are right. It’s all my fault. I should never have wooed Agathe, never have left Kaspar, never have cast my eyes on Kaspar in the first place! I dare not look at Agathe or Herr Kuno, whom I both let down so terribly.

The Prince’s face hardens.

“You will leave my land immediately and never return. Never will you marry this pure girl!”

Leave the village where I was born, where my mother is buried, never see my friends again, never Agathe – and yet I know that the Prince is merciful in regard to what I have done.

“I accept your verdict, Your Grace. I have been weak – but not evil on purpose,” I manage.

There seem people left in the crowd who do not condemn me.

“Up to now, he has always been loyal and dutiful,” Herr Kuno says.

“Do not take him from my arms, Your Grace,” Agathe begs. I dare to look at her. To see her distressed and in tears, when it should have been a joyful day in her life!

“He’s brave and good-natured!” Hans throws in.

“He’s always been a good man,” Ännchen says. “Have mercy, Sir!”

The Prince, however, remains unmoved.

“No – never! Agathe is too good for him! – Away with you, never dare to show your face here again! Should you ever return, the dungeon awaits you!”

There is no hope. The Prince shows me all the mercy he can in that he doesn’t order his bodyguards to have me incarcerated immediately.

Numbly, I turn to leave, when a deep voice speaks up.

“Who puts such a strict ban on him? Does his offence warrant so harsh a punishment?”

A tall, dark-haired man, clad in a white shirt and a dark coat steps from the forest. Everybody knows him; no one knows his name, though. He is called the Holy Man from the Forest, although his appearance is more that of a soldier than that of a hermit. People say he’s been an officer in the War, a nobleman, and when he came back, his whole family had been killed. Now he lives in a hut deep in the forest, alone.

His sharp eyes take in the Prince, the hunting party, the huntsmen and farmers, Agathe, Ännchen and the bridesmaids, and me, the culprit.

The Prince bows his head.

“Holy Man, who is revered near and far, you speak his judgement. I will bow to your will.”

Again, the Holy Man looks at everyone present.

“Even a good and pious man can step away from the righteous path, when he loves and is afraid,” he begins. “Despair can break all holds.”

Truer words have never been spoken. They shatter me to the marrow of my bones. It is, as if the Holy Man could look to the bottom of my soul. Does he know how apt his words are? He seems to guess so much … but what does he actually know?

“Is it right that the fate of two young people depends on a bullet’s course? And if they succumb to passion – who would take up the first stone? Who would not point to himself?” the Holy Man continues.

I succumbed to passion, it’s true. To a passion that lets my thoughts go out to Kaspar again … He, too, succumbed to his passion – for me. But how could he betray me, plot my doom – lie with me for one last time, and plot my doom? He must have been as despaired and out of his mind as I have been. But everything has been my fault. Never should I have sought out Kaspar so much – I practically asked for being taken as his lover …

The Holy man speaks on.

“Therefore, the trial shot shall never been done again.”

He looks at me. How much does he know – or suspect – of my sins? How much will he bring to the fore? And how can I defend myself? Lie? Tell the truth? They will put me to death!

“Him, Sir, who has sinned gravely, but has been decent and honest as well – Sir, grant him a probation year. And should he prove himself as honest and decent as before, give him Agathe’s hand in marriage.”

//He does not know!// I think. Or doesn’t he want to divulge all my sins? Does he think Kaspar seduced me to more than just making enchanted bullets, but now, that he is out of the way, I will never commit this crime against nature again? Then he is right. I will not. Never again. But I mourn Kaspar …

The Prince himself kneels down before the Holy Man.

“Your word is enough for me. A higher power speaks through you.”

If it were so, then there would be forgiveness …

The Prince approaches me again.

“If you prove yourself as the Holy Man said, I myself will be witness to your marriage!”

What to do? I suppress my pain about Kaspar’s betrayal, the pain of loss in my heart, and answer in gratitude.

“I will hold my duties sacred in the future!”

Agathe just cries, but now they are tears of relief.

“God in Heaven is full of mercy, so it honours a Prince to show forgiveness,” says the Holy Man. “But let us now thank God, who protected the innocent.”

We all fall to our knees and say a prayer. I should do so, but I dare not pray for Kaspar. I decide to bury him in Wolf’s Glen, as soon as I will not be under observation for a while. At least this last service I will give him. Will I have a chance to do so?

Chapter Text

A former hunting residence, rebuilt as a forester’s house, mid-1650s

 

I am worried. For more than four weeks, Max has not brought any prey home. This makes him unhappy, drags him down; he was accustomed to always hitting his mark. We all try to cheer him up, to encourage him: My father shows great patience; his comrades tell him that the best can have a bad streak, and Ännchen and I tell him we believe in him and his prowess as a marksman.

They hold a shooting contest at the village today and I asked my father to give Max leave so he could attend. He is a better marksman than his contestants, the farmers, by far. I prayed for his success. Oh, I hope so much that he will become king of the marksmen today! It would be such a good sign for the trial shot tomorrow. And yet I am fearful …

Fate seems to be against us. Or is it not fate, but the forces of evil? I overheard two of the huntsmen talk about Max’s bad luck. Is there actually such a thing as a “Waidbann”, a curse that makes a huntsman’s every shot go amiss? Is God testing us, whether our love will be strong enough to warrant our union?

I hope my love for Max will be strong enough … I sense that something is ailing him … Once I saw how his eyes lit up and how he smiled, just as he now smiles at me. Then, his smile was for someone else, though: For mysterious Kaspar, my father’s elder huntsman. Kaspar keeps to himself; it’s said that he drinks and gambles, and his luck with cards and dices is uncanny. He is a good hunter, though. But it is unusual that a good-looking man of his age isn’t married yet. The looks he gives the girls who cast an eye on him are not very inviting – something may be wrong with him. Not that he would look unseemly at a girl, his looks giving away sinful thoughts, no, not that. Rather, as if our looks annoy him … He frightens me.

When I was a little girl, I once got lost in the forest. I tried to find my way back, and suddenly, a big grey wolf stood in front of me, looking right at me. Its eyes were almost as clear as water, with a hint of yellow in them. Intent, vicious and without pity – and yet without malice. I was riveted to the spot – a shot cracked, and the animal fell down. My father had found me and shot the wolf. Never did I forget the wolf’s eyes. Kaspar’s eyes look the same: Intent, savage, merciless …

And yet, Max smiled at him – a lamb smiling at a wolf, I thought. And the wolf’s eyes lit up, and I saw a ferocious affection gleam in them – savage, but true and genuine nevertheless. It frightened me. Anyway, I thought Max’s affections lay somewhere else than with me – in a strange friendship – but how could I be the judge of this?

Max is a friendly, handsome, and good-natured young man – but something always seems to ail him – a hidden worry that made me curious, wanting to comfort him.

Considering what I had seen, I was surprised at first when he began to woe me. With relief I noticed that his strange friendship to Kaspar had cooled off; he even seemed to avoid my father’s elder huntsman.

Everything went so well, I was so happy. My father approved of Max’s courtship; Max seemed to forget his melancholy – and then, about four weeks ago, his streak of bad luck began. I hardly dare to think – what if he missed tomorrow, what if we couldn’t marry? Oh for the trial shot! What if I lost Max and instead had to marry a huntsman who would not miss? If Max missed his mark tomorrow – and God may prevent this! – would our love mean nothing before the Prince and my father? Would Max’s loyalty, sense of duty and all the times he brought home rich prey count for nothing? How could I bear this?

And yet, what if, secretly, Max was not happy with our union? What if his heart was actually given – to Kaspar, in a union I cannot fathom? But why would he ask for my hand in marriage, then? Does he want to escape from Kaspar in marrying me – or from himself? How could I help him, then? I will stand by him, as long as he wants me to, come what may. God, your will be done. I put our fate in your hands …

It has become quiet and lonely here. Only Heinrich, the old footman, and Ännchen to keep me company. All the huntsmen have left with our two servants to help prepare the hunting party. Where is Max? The shooting contest must long be over, and Father has promised me to send him over so I can learn how he did.

Around seven, we had just sat down to have supper, my ancestor Kuno’s picture tumbled down, and the frame hit me on the forehead. It is but a minor injury. Ännchen is worried, wants me to rest, but how could I rest before I have seen Max again? It seems as if love and sorrow often go hand in hand …

Is it a bad omen that the picture fell from the wall? Ännchen disperses my worries, she says the house is old and big, and it could become a bit uncanny, if honourable, long-decayed gentlemen took the effort to come off the wall – she’d prefer the ones who are young and alive.

She sings me a song, parodying the acting people – a pair of lovers – so well that I think if it weren’t quite unthinkable, she should become an actress and cheer up an audience on the stage – as she cheers me up. Of course, she is thinking of her suitor, Hans.

“Am I not a lovely bride?
And the boy no less handsome!”

I cannot help myself, I have to laugh and join in, and thus we spend the time until Max finally arrives.

He is taciturn, morose, which does not give me hope for tomorrow … The dark shadow looming over his head is more present than ever.

What in my first joy I had mistaken for a bunch of flowers gracing his hat, is a bunch of black and grey feathers – from a bird of prey, I assume.

Reluctantly, Max admits that he has not attended the shooting contest at all. Strange. Only yesterday, it seemed so important to him. And today, he tells us he has been in the mountains, shooting a huge eagle.

I retreat a little when he, with a suddenness and force I do not know from gentle Max, tears his hat from his head and presents the feather-bundle to us, knocking over the lamp on the table.

“It’s good and well the moon shines so brightly, we’d sit in the dark otherwise!” Ännchen drily remarks.

She lights another candle and quickly removes the shards from the broken lamp.

The mountain eagle brings back a series of dreams I had: Sometimes I see two eagles fly their rounds high up in the skies. They fly together, but suddenly the smaller one takes another route. The bigger and stronger eagle seems to try to keep the other one back; it follows its wayward companion with mighty sweeps of its huge wings, reaches the smaller eagle and attacks it with its sharp beak and huge claws. Bleeding, the smaller bird falls like a stone from the sky, and lands with a broken neck at my feet, while the harsh cry of the other eagle rings in my ears …

Lately, I dreamed I was a white dove, Max aimed his rifle at me, shot – and then I was in human form again, and instead, a dark bird of prey lay bleeding at my feet …

In the light of the newly-lit candle, Max discovers the bandage round my forehead and demands to know what happened. Ännchen tells him that Ancestor Kuno’s portrait fell off the wall: “The church bell had just sounded seven times, and we had sat down to supper, when the servant decided to quit its service and drop its master! Wasn’t that a bad thing to do?”

Max ignores her little joke.

“The church bell had just sounded seven times …” he repeats thoughtfully.

My question what ails him remains unanswered, instead he reproaches me: “I bring you a token of my returning luck – it has cost me a lot! And you – you still aren’t happy!”

For a moment, I am too taken aback with shock and sadness to say anything. This is not the Max I know – the expression on his face – as if he were looking into the abyss of hell …

The moment passes quickly, though, he apologizes and I smile at him and take him into my arms. I wonder, though, what he meant by “it has cost me a lot”. Again, I ask what ails him, but he answers that it is nothing.

“I must go away again,” he then announces, gently eluding my embrace. “I have been lucky a second time and shot a capital stag! I must fetch it from the woods, so the farmers won’t steal it at night.”

He is right. My father always tells his huntsmen to never leave a dead animal in the forest overnight. “It proves too great a temptation for two- or four-legged scavengers,” he uses to say.

“And where did you shoot the stag?” Ännchen asks.

Max hesitates. “Far away,” he finally says. “Near Wolf’s Glen.”

I nearly scream in horror.

“What?! There in that horrible glen?”

“The Savage Pack is said to chase there! Whoever hears them, flees,” Ännchen adds, not really frightened, but with a comfortable shudder. It was always her who persuaded Old Marie, our nanny, to tell us ghost stories – of the Savage Pack chasing in Wolf’s Glen; of the poacher who set out at night to shoot a deer and met the Headless Horseman – a soldier whose head had been torn off by a cannon ball in flight during a battle. I remember that the poacher’s head was found on one of the fence poles round his garden, his face distorted in a mask of terror, and his hair all white – old wives’ tales for sure, but it had been always me who had the nightmares …

“Should fear live in a huntsman’s heart?” Max asks.

“But it is a sin to try God!” I reply.

Max doesn’t seem to hear me.

“I’m familiar with the horrors of midnight in the forest – the sounds of the trees in a storm, the screech of a jay, the flight of the owl,” he says.

“I am afraid,” I beseech him, “don’t hurry away so fast! I beg you, stay!” I cannot explain why I am so afraid; it seems to me as if Max were about to do something desperate …

“Don’t you see how afraid she is?” Ännchen supports me. “Don’t leave again so fast!”

As an answer, Max takes up his hat, satchel and rifle.

“So my fear doesn’t move you?” I ask.

“I gave my word! It’s my duty!” Max insists.

Whom did he give his word? Who will bring the stag to the Prince’s hunting lodge with him? Whom will he meet? – I try to shake off my misgivings. It is none of my business whom my father ordered to get in the stag.

“So, farewell then,” I say unhappily.

“Farewell,” Max says in a low voice. He turns to leave, stops and returns.

“Am I forgiven for what I said earlier?” he asks.

How could I not forgive him?

“I am just worried for you,” I reply. “Please heed my warning and take care!”

Ännchen shrugs.

“That’s a huntsman’s life – never any rest, be it day or night!”

So, very reluctantly, I let Max leave again. Soon afterwards, we retire for the night.
I am left worrying, facing a night with not much sleep …

First, as I lie awake, I think of the day when I got lost in the forest as a little girl and found myself eye to eye with the wolf. I ask myself what would have happened hadn’t my father found me and shot the wolf. Its look appeared to me not hungry for meat – just attentive, savage and strange. Without mercy, but not cruel. A wild animal knows neither mercy nor cruelty, it simply follows its nature … Most probably, the wolf would have attacked me – but it might also have gone its way. As my father shot it on sight, I will never know …

I must have dozed off, dream … I am in the forest again, but I am no child any more. I am lost, something I cannot see and cannot name is after me – and then the wolf trots into my stumbling path. I stop – and suddenly there is no wolf, but my father’s elder huntsman, Kaspar. He looks at me, his eyes are like those of the wolf – and suddenly he bares his teeth. They become fangs; he jumps at me, in mid-attack the man changes into the wolf again. My father with his rifle is not there to save me – I wake up, my heart savagely beating.

I light a candle and say my prayers again, but only in the first light, my eyes close– and I dream again that I am a dove, Max aims his rifle at me, shoots – and a dark bird of prey lies dead at my feet, while in this dream, I remain unharmed …

An early hour finds me up, praying again. I feel a terrible fear, as if this was not my wedding day, but the last morning of my life. Surely, to go over from the state of a virgin to that of a married woman cannot be the cause of my fears? Not with gentle, dear Max …

Max, where is he? The huntsmen are all at the Prince’s hunting lodge. Since neither Ännchen nor Old Heinrich behave any differently, and nobody brings bad news, I assume that Max and the other hunter have safely brought in the stag at night. I hope, Max has found more sleep last night than I have.

I see the old messenger woman arrive from the village, but she only brings a box. It will be my bridal crown. I must dress. Soon the bridesmaids will be here to lead me to the Prince’s hunting party, where the highlight will be Max doing the trial shot – and how I beg and hope that he will be as successful as he was yesterday! My Lord, thy will be done …

Ännchen comes in and sees the tears in my eyes. I did not even notice I cried. Worried, she asks me what the matter is, and I tell her my dreams. She explains away the frightening images in a down-to-earth way. The encounter with the wolf – a relic of my childhood fears, nervousness of becoming a married woman tonight. Kaspar – fear of the unknown, the stranger, who in the end is every man. The white dove she explains as that I thought of my white bridal dress, and the dark bird of prey as the black bush of feathers on Max’s hat that frightened me.

“But did you never hear that dreams become true?” I object.

Ännchen wrinkles her forehead and her little nose, as she always does when she is up to mischief.

“But of course!” she exclaims. “I myself know a horrifying example … My cousin, God rest her soul, once dreamed the door to her room would open. Her nose got pale, because something crept closer – and closer: A monster – with fiery eyes and a rattling chain … it came right up to the bed in which she was lying – my cousin with her chalky nose. She crossed herself, called – after many a fearful prayer: ‘Susanne! Margaret! – Susanne! Margaret!’ They came with a light, and – just imagine – and don’t be frightened – the ghost was – Nero, the yard dog!”

In anger, I turn my back to her. Sure, she tried to cheer me up, but I feel mocked, my fears ridiculed. My nerves are bad; I shouldn’t react that angrily, she doesn’t mean me any harm –
Gently, she touches my shoulder.

“Now you are angry. But do you really think I didn’t feel with you?”

I turn around, and she hugs me, pulls me down onto a chair and looks earnestly into my eyes.

“It is just that a bride shouldn’t cry on her wedding day. She should be happy and spread her happiness. You will marry a good, loyal man; your union is near, so don’t worry and be afraid, my dear, sweet friend!”

We embrace for a moment and I feel comforted and encouraged indeed. Even if Max should have walked other paths before, now he has chosen me, and all differences will be settled.

Young, cheerful voices from outside make Ännchen jump up.

“Listen! The bridesmaids have arrived!”

A moment later, there’s a knock at the door, and Liese, Grete, Theres, and Franziska enter, all in their Sunday best, with bunches of meadow flowers in their hands and crowns wound of violets in their hair.

Ännchen greets them joyfully. “I’ll fetch the bridal crown, and you can sing for the bride meanwhile!”

They don’t have to be asked twice: short, elfin Liese; tall Grete; big Theres and thin, mousy Franziska:

“We weave the virgin’s wreath for you,
With violet-blue silk.
We lead you to play and dance,
To happiness and the joy of love.
Beautiful, green, beautiful, green virgin’s wreath!
Violet-blue silk! Violet-blue silk!” Liese sings,

then Grete takes over:
“Lavender, myrtle and thyme
All grow in my garden.
How long will the suitor take?
I can hardly wait for him!
Beautiful, green virgin’s wreath!
Violet-blue silk!”

Now it’s Theres’s turn:
“She has spun for seven years
The golden flax on the spinning wheel.
The veil’s as fine as cobweb,
And green the wreath on her curls.
Beautiful, green virgin’s wreath!
Violet-blue silk!”

Franziska, who has a beautiful voice, sings the last verse:
“And when the handsome suitor came,
Seven years had passed.
And because he took his love as a bride,
She’s won the wreath!
Beautiful, green virgin’s wreath!
Violet-blue silk!”

Ännchen comes back and waves her arms in front of the bridesmaids’ choir, like the cantor does in church. They repeat the end of the song, and Ännchen opens the box to crown me with the bridal wreath – but she drops the box, and the four girls jump back – Franziska screams, Theres squeals, as if the box contained a big spider –

“A burial crown!” Ännchen exclaims, pointing to the black, silken wreath which has fallen to the floor. “The old messenger woman must have mixed up the boxes,” she continues, hastily taking up the wreath.

“Now, what do we do? We must have a wreath!”

At this moment, I remember the white roses the Old Man from the Forest gave me.

“Take the Hermit’s white roses for my wreath,” I say.

“A wonderful idea!” Ännchen says immediately. “They will suit you perfectly!”

A few roses are quickly snipped from the plant, bound together with a white ribbon she finds in a drawer, and we are ready to leave for the festivities, the bridesmaids singing their song again.

We walk through the village, then down the sunny path that leads into the forest. From afar, I can hear singing, the clinking of glasses, the clatter of plates, and the sound of violins. The festivities are in full swing. I wish so much the Prince had given Max his shooting task already, Max had succeeded and would take me into his arms as his rightful bride, as soon as I entered the clearing where the Princely banquet is held.

Things are not so, however. The Prince has given his order, yes, there is a white dove sitting on the branch of a tree, to which he points. My father, some of the Prince’s guests, hunters, servants and people from the village are standing in a wide circle round the Prince and Max, who aims his rifle at the dove, just as I enter the clearing with Ännchen and the bridesmaids.

The white dove! My dream! Something tells me that under no circumstances Max must shoot this dove.

“Shoot!” the Prince orders.

“Don’t shoot” I shout, but the shot rings out, and everything around me turns black …

Blurred, worried faces look down at me – my father, the Prince himself, my bridesmaids, Ännchen. I am just a bit dizzy, but I feel no pain, so I sit up, which does not cause me any pain either.

Max is standing alone, his rifle still in his hand; when he sees me sitting up, he hurries to me, kneels at my side. I smile at him. Relief floods my heart, gratitude that I am still alive, breathing, and sobs escape me.

“Calm down, dear, everything’s alright!” Ännchen and Max both hold my hands.

“She’s alive!” my father exclaims.

“All hallows praise and thanks!” some people call and cross themselves.

I look around, and I see the white dove sitting in the branches of the tree, unharmed.

“The huntsman who fell from the tree!” A farmer points to the figure of a man lying on the ground. “He’s been hurt!”

He is right. Stumbling, the man tries to get up, clutching his chest, from which blood flows, staining his hands and his clothes. I recognize him immediately, when he lifts his head: It’s Kaspar … My dream … the black mountain eagle – the wolf! He stumbles a few steps towards us, falls down again. The bridesmaids, the people from the village, even the huntsmen retreat in horror when they hear him shout curses at the empty air, as if speaking to someone only he can see.

He coughs up blood. Despite my horror, I take a step forward to aid the man, but I haven’t yet regained full command of my legs and stumble. Ännchen and Theres support me, drag me back from Kaspar.

The dying man looks around; his eyes fall on Max, who stares in horror at Kaspar crawling towards him.

“F – forg -!” the wounded man manages, topples forward and doesn’t move any more. Is he dead?

For a second, no one says a word, then the people begin to talk all at once.

“So this has been his prayer in death?” – “He cursed heaven itself!” – “Did you hear him call the Evil One?”

The Prince orders two huntsmen, Hans and Friedrich, to throw the man into Wolf’s Glen. Hesitantly, they obey. The dangling limbs … he must be dead. I avert my eyes. Ännchen and Theres lead me to a seat at the Prince’s table a young huntsman offers quickly. I shudder. Even if he was a bad man, leaving his body at the mercy of the elements and the wild animals is horrible. He was my father’s elder huntsman, but he must have been more evil than we all thought. Or had he just become mad in the war?

Things have happened so quickly … Wasn’t it all a terrible accident? But Max is a good shot – I sense that something must have gone terribly wrong … Something, which hasn’t been right from the start …

The Prince seems to have similar thoughts. Brusquely, he demands an explanation from Max. My love looks relieved, shocked, horrified, guilty – and sad, and I am glad that I have a seat when I hear his confession:

“The dead man’s deceit lured me, so out of despair I left the path of virtue. The four bullets I used today were enchanted bullets which I made together with him!”

A hushed murmur from the people around. I hide my face in my hands, hear someone near me say: “After he missed every time at the shooting contest yesterday, and we mocked him – my, he took it so badly!”

So everything Max told me yesterday has been a lie: He had been at the shooting contest very well, and must have made a fool of himself there. The mountain eagle – had the bullet which took this bird from the sky been another enchanted one? So, he had not been lucky at all. He had met up with Kaspar – but not to bring in a stag he had shot, but to make the enchanted bullets! – And one of them had almost cost me my life! I think only the white roses from the Holy Man saved me. – So many lies! How often has Max lied to me at other times …? I rally. He must have been really despaired. He did all this for me, too … And yet, I am torn between anger and my love for him. What will happen now?

“Hurry and avoid my territory!” the Prince exclaims. “Never dare to return here! You will never receive this pure girl’s hand!”

At this moment I know I that I love Max with all my heart and will never leave him. Losing him is more than I could bear.

I beg the Prince not to tear him away from me, and everybody has to say something good about Max and asks for mercy for him, God bless them.

The Prince, however, remains unmoved. So I will lose Max – in the end because he has a good, gentle heart and was not cold-blooded enough under pressure … I’m not sure how I will survive this blow –

At this moment, the Holy Man of the Forest appears, and he speaks for Max, too. In words which move everybody’s heart. He speaks what I sometimes thought, but never dared to say: He claims that it’s not right to put the fate of two people on the flight of a bullet, so the trial shot should be abolished. For Max, he asks for a probation year. Should he again prove reliable, trustworthy, loyal, and diligent, we shall become husband and wife – and the Prince is moved and agrees! He pardons Max!

So I am sure everything will turn out well in the end. The curse will be lifted from Max; he will be a good marksman again. Maybe he’ll forget whatever fateful entanglement bound him to Kaspar …

He will prove as good and loyal as he ever was, and he will be a good husband. He might forget over time – but something tells me – and I do not know from where I get this thought - then he might not, because whatever his connection to my father’s elder huntsman was, may be his true nature …

Chapter Text

Thirsty – where am I? – Alone – can’t move – hot, feverish. Pain – such pain – I can’t breathe - darkness. Where am I? No longer with the hunting party … Fell from the tree – couldn’t’ve been that bad, the fall.

Quiet – so quiet – won’t be long, though, for the first scavengers to arrive for their meal. Don’t feel my legs anymore – stinks – shat and peed myself – try to turn – damned pain – devil’s bollocks! Samiel – you rotten bastard, you betrayed me – curse you! All magic – not worth a horseshit –

Thirsty- so damn rotten thirsty – and dizzy.

What’s that? Who’s callin’ me? Where am I?

A meadow – somewhere, I forgot the place – I smell the grass, feel it under my bare feet, feel the sun – I run like a puppy when I hear her call, “Come, Kaspar, come!” and throw myself into her outstretched arms, giggling when she tickles me – Agnes, my big sister – many children – I forgot how many – I’m the youngest. So young that I fall asleep after I prayed with Agnes that evening. I slept through hell, and the devils didn’t find me then. – I wake up from screams and noise, and harsh, strange men’s voices – I’m afraid. I hide in a corner, when I see a devil with a knife, and he doesn’t see me.

I don’t know how long I hide. I’m so young that I still believe when I close my eyes and put my fingers in my ears, the devils aren’t there any more or they will go away. But there’s a smell of smoke, and it makes me cough and gasp…

I cough and gasp for air – burns like fire – try to crawl – right arm’s useless, too – the devil fuck it all!

I must be dreamin’ – our hut’s burnin’ – no screams and shouts any longer now – it’s quiet except for the crackling of the burnin’ – Father has two half heads. He lies at the end of the ladder I just learned to manage alone – two of my elder brothers lie next to him – all quiet, pools of blood around their heads – they have big, gaping mouths in their throats.

Mother’s outside, swingin’ from a tree – naked, blood on her thighs, she’s showing her tongue, her face is swollen. Another brother and sister – so quiet, smeared with blood. I shake them, one after the other; they lie as if asleep, I want them to wake up, but they won’t – too much blood. Agnes is lying in the stable, naked too, on her back, staring at the ceiling. Big Hans, our ox, is gone, as is Gret, the goat. – Agnes, too, won’t wake up and tickle me. – “Come, Kapa, come!”, I try – I’m too young, I do not understand what death means, then, but I should learn, I should learn –

A fox is creeping close – no, you mangy bastard, you won’t get me until I’m dead – hopefully you won’t have to wait much longer – must somehow get to that little cave over there – what for? But I must –

Forgive me, Max, forgive me! Yes, I wanted to hurt you, to destroy you – you made me good, you gave me peace – and you went away from me! You weren’t the first one, you’re right, but you were different, and therefore I couldn’t bear to let you go – stupid! Stupid! But you made me feel alive, free, in a world where everybody else was either a scavenger or a sheep…

“’Nes – wakup, up!”

There suddenly is this woman who is not dead in the world of the bleedin’, quiet brothers ‘n sisters, father and mother … I hear the snorts of a horse and the creakin’ of a cart, and watch her from the stable.

She comes with a horse-drawn small cart, wears a red dress and has black hair. She looks around, careful at first, then as if everything here belongs to her, takes a piece of crockery here, some clothing there, looks into the stable where I hide. She is tall, then, when I sit on the ground, next to Agnes, who still won’t move, won’t wake up.

I don’t hide from her; something tells me she won’t hurt me like the devils did with the others. Anyway, I’m too occupied with waking Agnes up. “Come, Kapa, come!”, I call. I want her to play the game with me; I had called her before when she had been asleep, and she had woken up and played the game with me – I run and she catches me into her arms and whirls me around. Maybe I think if she wakes up now, everythin’ is a bad dream. Why won’t she wake up and play now?

I sit there sobbin’ when the strange woman comes to me and looks down at me. Yes, she’s tall, then. I know today that she was thinking whether to leave me there to starve, to make it quick and break my neck, or to take me with her. She told me later, much later – Marthe, the sutler - when I saw her last, she reached up to my shoulder, and her hair had become all grey. She gave what she could, did what she could, but there was the war …

When I was a bit older, we went to the battlefields when the battles were over, and the dead and the dying gave up their little treasures … She taught me to steal from the dead, to end the misery of the dying with a quick cut through the throat – scavengers we were. Lived from the dead and the living, went with the soldiers.

Before I even had a beard on my chin, before my voice dropped, I became a soldier myself. Sometimes, I did the same as had been done to my people, but I made sure everybody was dead, if I could, especially the women and girls; before my companions could get to them – stupid move – they took me and nearly killed me. Later, I raped, too, but it’s not the same – not the same as what is given freely –

Fever – thirsty – so thirsty – pain everywhere – I wish someone would come and end my agony, as I did with so many – but no such luck. They must’ve dragged me away somewhere, thinking I was dead – or not to disturb the festivities by dyin’ – am I in Wolf’s Glen?

I wish Max would come – to see Max again, explain … But why should he come? They all believe I’m dead – wish I was already. He’s with his bride – or is she dead, too? – How much time has passed since they threw me down here?

Max – I didn’t want to start anything when I came here. The war was over, and I was with a man – Ludwig, a clever man, taught me to read and write – we were of one kind, too.

And Ludwig could talk! “Beware of jealousy, Kaspar,” he once said to me, “Maybe ‘t was jealousy brought Judas to betray Jesus. Maybe Judas was with Jesus, and Jesus took it up with John or Mary Magdalene or both, and Judas wouldn’t have it, so he betrayed Jesus. They put Jesus to death at the cross, which was a kind of gallows back then. And what did Judas get out of it? Nothing. He perished, killed himself, couldn’t live with what he had done. And even if he was with John or Mary Magdalene, would Jesus have loved Judas less? Would he have kicked him out? No, he wouldn’t have. – And I wouldn’t love you less, Kaspar, even when I take it up with another man or a woman from time to time,” Ludwig said. Oh, how he could talk!

But I couldn’t stand him being with others – so I went on my way. Met a fellow who taught me magic – sold me to Samiel as I later sold Max …

Max – I just wanted peace and quiet here in the village where the war had not been – hunting in the forest was good – I had learned how to kill quickly and effectively with a rifle and a knife, if anything. But otherwise – they looked at me, curious, fearful, didn’t trust me, even if I kept to myself – sheep they are …

No, I didn’t want to take it up with anybody – and then there was Max. Tall, strong, blue eyes, flaxen hair – so gentle, so innocent – and of my kind. He followed me like a little dog. And yet – what’s so special about him? I can’t even say. But he made me good – and then he turned to the Head Huntsman’s doll-faced daughter. I should’ve known – should have seen it coming – he lay with me, then he went to church to pray that his sin would be forgiven. He wasn’t happy with me – but was he happy with her?

I for my part felt as if the earth had given way under my feet and as if I’d fall, fall, fall into an endless abyss. I cannot stand people turning away from me – and losing Max to that wax doll was bad. Wasn’t the first time such a thing happened – had been alright – others didn’t mean much to me – but seeing Max together with her, every day, I couldn’t bear. I should have left, as I did the other times ...

Thirsty – feverish – pain, so much pain – nausea – Lord, the fox is back, tearing at my legs – Samiel – God – let it end – just let it end!

Max’s despair made him willingly accept my offer to make enchanted bullets with me. Without his knowledge, I dedicated the seventh bullet to Samiel. He was to direct it to Agathe, so Max would have shot his bride, which would have made him despair – him and her father, Herr Kuno, who’s almost as stuck-up as the Prince himself …

Instead, Samiel, the dirty bastard, directed the bullet to me – will get me now.

Everything goes black – I think it’s over, but then I come to again. It has become night – gleaming eyes around the cave, which I’ve finally reached – no knife, no rifle – the wolves and vultures will soon tear me limb from limb. They’re still careful – I’m not weakened enough yet – but soon – and then hell, whatever this may mean – Fuck it all!

Had Samiel kept his word – would it have brought Max back to me? No – so it was foolish, senseless and foolish. – Forgive me, Max, forgive me! – A wolf – two – three – they tear – over – now – soon –

The scavengers feed on my body, which hurts no longer. I stand next to them and watch how they tear it apart.

I feel nothing – and then, there is another pain, not from the body, which makes me howl and scream and cry – it’s sharp, piercing like a knife. Despair about myself, remorse for what I did to Max and Agathe – loneliness – I cannot leave Wolf’s glen – run around howlin’, screamin’, cryin’ – will everything be like this forever? How long – I don’t know …

They come – barking dogs, ghostlike, half-rotten, all fangs – horses, snorting and whinnying, their bones gleaming white in the dark – huntsmen and soldiers, some mere shades, some skeletons or rotting corpses – and some I recognize – the Slaughterer – loved to dismember people before he gave them the Swedes’ Drink; tried to bash my head in when I was little. Marthe put a knife into his belly. – Midas, who grabbed all the money, promised to spare their lives when we plundered and killed them anyway – Martin the Sharpshooter who taught me to make enchanted bullets – but it is Balthasar the Poacher who extends his rotting hand to me – “Come, Kaspar, come!”

Freedom again! Away from Wolf’s Glen I soar like a vulture. A terror to the god-fearing, we roam the countries – but it’s the not-so god-fearing, the corrupt, the greedy, the slaughterers, the liars and hypocrites we are after …

From time to time, though, I’m drawn to Wolf’s Glen – I can’t forget Max – still want him to forgive me …

Chapter Text

I run down the stony path, stumbling over rocks and tree roots; branches whipping my face; thorny brambles tearing my clothes, trapping my fleeing feet. I have dropped my rifle long ago; the huntsman has become the hunted; fleeing like a deer from the moving shadow behind me, the dying man, clawing at me with bloodied hands – I stumble, almost fall, catching my balance at the last moment, flying through the trees; my ghostly pursuer gaining on me, closing the distance to his prey at an uncanny speed. I can smell him, the coppery smell of blood, then the stench of decay; I feel a dead hand clutch my shoulder in an iron grip – with a muffled scream, I awake, sitting up in bed, breathing heavily, beaded with sweat, my heart beating as if it wanted to jump out of my chest …

A could draught from the open window makes me shudder, but brings me a little to my senses. I try to calm my breath and listen, at the same time stealthily feeling for the body next to me. My mind clears; the place beside me is empty tonight; my wife is at her cousin’s place. Ännchen’s time had come to give birth to her second child, and Agathe would not forsake her friend and relative in her hour of need. Together with the midwife, she will wake at Ännchen’s bed or look after young Kuno, should he wake up and cry.

I am grateful my wife has not been a witness to my nightmare. During the last few months the dreams have become even more frequent, and hiding them from her, or, if this is not possible, explaining them away has become more and more difficult. Maybe Agathe with her fine senses guesses more of what is going on with me than I’d want to tell her about…

I should be a happy man, having a dear, loving wife and being in good standing with the Prince again as the head huntsman. Yet, I am not, and Agathe is worried already. Several times she has asked what ails me. I told her about a whole gang of poachers stealing the Prince’s deer and wild boars – which is true, but this is not what is foremost on my mind. Agathe must feel that my sorrows do not only concern the poachers.

She will want me to see the old hermit who wed us, or she will want me to pray with her so the shadows over my mind will lift. - Oh, if it were that easy! If I were the good, honest man she sees in me!

The cold draught makes me shudder again. I get up from the bed, standing in my shirt, biting my knuckles like a fearful little boy.

“It has to be. Tonight. Now”, I order myself, but nevertheless stand swaying, finally falling to my knees, sobbing.

“Are you a man or a cowering wench, Huntsman?” a mocking voice asks in my head, so much like Kilian’s voice – Kilian, the farmer who won the shooting contest while I didn’t even once hit the mark. //You have been his wench alright, haven’t you?//

“Enough!” I scream, beating myself over the head.

Shocked from my outbreak, I listen, but nothing stirs in the house. Old Marie is deaf, and Franz, the hunters’ hand, has a sound sleep.

I dress quickly, hurry downstairs, grab a lantern and a small spade and slip out of my house like a thief.

It’s the early hours of the morning and pitch dark still, too early for anyone to be up and about. Any good Christian will still be in bed and have his well-deserved rest from a long workday. But rest has fled me since that fatal day – not when everything ended, but the day I began my apprenticeship as a huntsman for Herr Kuno, who was Prince Ottokar’s head huntsman then. The day I first set eyes on Kaspar, Herr Kuno’s senior huntsman, who was to teach me the first ropes of the trade … Kaspar looked at me with the clear eyes of a beast of prey, without mercy but also without evil, and motioned me to follow with a nod of his head, without even acknowledging Herr Kuno. I trailed after him, bewildered, astonished about his lack of respect towards Herr Kuno. There had never been any love lost between my father-in-law and his senior huntsman …

I hurry through the sleeping village – it’s too early even for a huntsman to be up and about. As if walking in one of my dreams, I take the path into the forest. Treading silently has become second nature to me, and although I listen for – what? The slurring, stumbling steps of a dying man? – I hear nothing but an owl hooting in the distance and here and there a rustling in the underbrush, from a mouse or a rabbit, perhaps. Hurrying forward, I see the eyes of a creature gleam in the dark and my heart does another leap – but it is something small, a badger perhaps – nothing to fear. Why am I so frightful? What’s to fear for a huntsman? I didn’t take my rifle, but there’s always my hunting knife in my belt …

The moon has come out behind the clouds, so even in the shadows of the woods it is bright enough for someone familiar with the forest to find his way without a lantern. I will need the lantern later, though, to find my way down into Wolf’s Glen, where Prince Ottokar ordered two of my hunting comrades to throw Kaspar’s corpse. No grave for the huntsman who was in league with the demons of hell – he was left to rot in a place where no decent Christian dares to go, and hardly a wanderer straying off the path will find his way to. Everybody knows that evil spirits roam there. I have seen them myself, once, on that other fatal day when I joined Kaspar in Wolf’s Glen for black magic – and I shudder at the thought of going there again. Kaspar’s body has been left exposed to the elements, his flesh food for the wild beasts, so his soul will never be at peace.

Even a man who laid a hand on himself is given a shallow grave outside hallowed ground, but not you. The animals will have long scattered your bones, Kaspar, but I will gather them and lay them to rest, if only in Wolf’s Glen.

The deeper I come into the forest, the more densely the trees stand and the more overgrown the path becomes, until it ends completely. I have to find my way through the thicket, stumbling over the rotting trunks of fallen trees, slipping on rocks covered in moss; I’m tripped by gnarly roots. Darkness is so deep in this part of the forest that I can’t find my way without the light of the lantern any longer, although its shine doesn’t reach far and makes the surrounding darkness appear even blacker.

“Forgive me for not coming earlier,” I find myself whispering to the cold night air, “but I could not very well go to the Wolf’s Glen during my probation year, could I? Herr Kuno never left me out of his sight, and the other huntsmen had an eye on me as well, you know. And then there was the wedding – and Herr Kuno’s funeral not long afterwards …” The shallow excuses of a coward, this. Yes, I tried to hide behind a woman’s skirts, to lead a sheep’s life, the life of a hypocrite…

Does the cold make me shudder or the thought of my father-in-law being dead? I’m convinced that the dead can see everything the living want to hide. Herr Kuno will know the truth about me. As does my poor mother. Every night, before retiring to bed, I pray for the souls of my mother and my father-in-law; I visit their graves as often as my duties allow me – but deep inside I know that I do not pray out of concern for their souls, but to appease them … But they come after me, too …

The moon has vanished behind clouds, wind sweeps the trees, dead leaves rustle under my fleeing steps, a dried twig breaks under my foot. I cross a clearing, yes, I’m on the right way. It begins to drizzle. I put up the collar of my cloak and hurry on.

All my prayers don’t seem to be of much help; Herr Kuno as well as my mother visit me regularly in my nightmares; my mother crying, the sadness in her eyes even harder to bear than my father-in-law’s stern disappointment mixed with disgust. Next Sunday, I will ask the priest to hold another mass for their souls … Or should I ask him to pray for me – are they just in my head?

Never, though, do I dare to pray for Kaspar. It’s unthinkable somehow to name Mother and Herr Kuno in one breath with - him. But tonight, in Wolf’s Glen, I’ll say a prayer for him …

“Almost there, almost there,” I murmur, holding up my lantern, looking around to find my way. “Soon …”

Careful now. Wolf’s Glen is a deep, sudden gash in the forest ground. A wrong step means falling into the gorge, breaking my limbs and dying a slow, miserable death from exposure, if not some wolf or bear shortens my misery. And there are the demons from hell Wolf’s Glen is crawling with, torturing the souls of the unfortunates whose bones are still rotting somewhere between the rocks … I clutch the small silver cross I have in my pocket, although I think in my heart that God only protects the innocent, and, hell knows, innocent I am no longer…

There is one way into the glen which is fairly safe. To get there, however, I have to find my way along the zigzag rim of the gorge for a good distance.

“Soon …”

I’ve found the way down, but stop in my tracks and hesitate, just as I did - then, the fatal day I agreed to meet with Kaspar in Wolf’s Glen to make the enchanted bullets. The shine from the fire Kaspar had lit showed me the way then; now I look into the gorge, half expecting Kaspar at a fire, in a magic circle, waiting for me impatiently, but the only thing I see is a small ray of light from my own lantern. Beyond the ray everything is dark, filled with the rustling voices of the wind and the creatures of the night …

I look around once more, fearing to see my mother’s ghost again, waving me back from the way down into the gorge, but I’m met only with darkness - and silence now, too much silence… The wind has died down, as has the rustling in the underbrush. The gorge itself seems to hold its breath, like a living thing, a wild beast, keeping absolutely still, so as not to disturb its prey until it will be close enough for the deadly attack …

A shudder runs down my spine; the hair at the back of my head stands on end, but as I have done then, I do now, climbing down into the gorge.

Yes, it is madness, a foolish undertaking. After two years of exposure to the elements, the teeth and claws of wild animals, there will not be much left of Kaspar’s body. To find his bones would be a difficult task by day, now, at night, it is almost hopeless. Nevertheless, the drizzle has stopped and the moon has come out again, almost full, shining brightly through the trees, and I take this as a sign that nature is with me.

I have reached the bottom safely, now I look around for orientation. We’ve been near the Prince’s hunting lodge when I fired the fatal shot - the last of seven bullets … Kaspar had intended for me to hit Agathe, but the bullet found the schemer himself instead. – Why did you betray me, Kaspar, hate me so much? I wasn’t as strong as you …

I wipe my face. Oh yes, Kaspar has betrayed me, planned for me to kill my own bride. The seventh bullet from the ones we made at Wolf’s Glen during the night Kaspar had secretly dedicated to Samiel, the demon he had been in league with. I know that now; it must’ve been so.

Oh, Kaspar had a wild streak, cold blood, but a fiery temper, and you could never be sure what was on his mind. He had been a soldier when still a lad, came from afar and had seen a lot, but I never suspected that he would have been in league with the devil. True, Herr Kuno warned me: “He’s a good huntsman and will show you everything you should know as well as I would – but otherwise – stay away from Kaspar! He is no company for a good, decent young man like you.” I thought Herr Kuno referred to Kaspar’s habits of drinking and gambling, habits he was deadly set against. Sometimes, I’ve wondered why Herr Kuno kept Kaspar in his services, although he disliked him so much. But Kaspar was one of his best huntsmen, as I’ve seen for myself. Hunting, Kaspar became part of the forest; patiently, he followed the trails of the deer or wild boars, bears, wolves, or lynx; he could wait motionless for hours if necessary, his kill was quick. – He was beautiful to watch in the forest …

Hans, Joseph or Friedrich dropped a hint here and there that Kaspar’s luck with cards and dices was uncanny, yes, but they never said anything similar about his hunting skills. He would not have needed enchanted bullets … So why did Kaspar draw me into black magic? Why did his wild, untamed love turn into hatred at the blink of an eye? – Why, Kaspar, why? Sure, being with you at times was like being in the company of a wild animal – better to be watchful at all times. The long war must’ve hurt many men who were unharmed in life and limb, but were bewildered in their minds … It would be too easy, however, to blame everything that has happened on you - no, the longer I mull everything over, the more I become convinced that in the end everything was my own fault … The local priest has once spoken about the devil sometimes taking the shape of a beautiful woman to lure young men to their doom – how should I’ve known that the evil one would destroy me through another man? I should’ve been stronger, been more aware of my own desires … But how could I’ve guarded myself against something I didn’t even know existed?

Kaspar hadn’t done anything to encourage me, but I found myself following him around like a young dog traipsing after its master – admiring, enamoured, bewitched? No, not bewitched, then. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt better in the company of men … I admired Kaspar’s sureness with rifle and hunting knife, his strength... Kaspar, tall, muscular yet slender - he had moved with the natural grace of a beast of prey. His eyes –oh, had I never looked into his eyes! – a mixture of grey and green, sharp and piercing, they seemed to see peoples’ hidden thoughts and desires; perhaps he sometimes had seen even more than people were aware of in themselves ... Very soon, on the second or third day of my apprenticeship, he gave me that knowing look of his. Just a look, nothing else, but I felt exposed, my most secret desires brought to daylight, desires I hadn’t known about ... How strange that nobody else seemed to notice a thing. But if someone had noticed and said something, I would have made him shut up with my fists. I’m no bully, but the situation drove me to despair. This unfulfilled longing - for what? I had no words for what I wanted. What made me swallow, looking at him; hard – longing for his touch? The day Kaspar finally spoke, I was lost.

I remember it as if it had been yesterday: The day was hot, sweltering. Not far from the village was a lake, and since it was late at night, I had decided to bathe there. As it was so late, I had not reckoned on somebody else still swimming far out in the lake. I hoped to be alone and, seeing I had company, I thought about leaving again. The man in the lake had also seen that he was no longer alone. He stopped swimming, treading water, probably waiting whether I would go or stay. Some of the farmer lads sometimes bathed there, so at first I thought it was one of them. Some of them swum like fishes.

So I thought “What about it?” and began to take off my clothes. The other man now quickly swam up to the shore and came out of the water. Oh, had I left then and there! But fate surely would have found another way …

The swimmer was Kaspar. I grabbed my trousers again, abandoning the idea of bathing. To see Kaspar naked as God had created him was too much. In vain, I tried not to see the water run in rivulets over the muscular, hairy chest and the flat stomach, I tried to avert my eyes from the long legs, the long, slender member under a bush of dark hair. I wanted to run and was riveted to the spot. Lifting my eyes to Kaspar’s face, when he pushed his hair back, I found the knowing look again, mixed with a hint of anger at being disturbed. And there was more in Kaspar’s eyes – something I could not put a name to … If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was fear …

No, Kaspar didn’t do anything to encourage me – and yet I was lost. Kaspar took up his clothes, stepped into his trousers, then pulled his shirt over his head.

“What are you staring at? Have you never seen another man naked?” he asked gruffly.

I balled my fists. I felt so ashamed and so angry! I knew that he saw right through me.

“I - I didn’t think that someone else would be here at this time of night,” I managed.

“That so?” Kaspar answered … His voice, deep, a bit rough – his tone was indifferent, he didn’t look at me.

We both still could have gone our separate ways, Kaspar back to the village, I cooling myself off in the lake. However, we stood as if banned to our places, I nervously fidgeting, fists balled in the pockets of my trousers, kicking small stones into the lake, Kaspar looking at the ground between his feet. Finally he looked up again, and I stumbled backwards, seeing the mixture of anger and wild desire his face. And there was something more – a hint of fear? Fear of what?

“We are of the same kind,” Kaspar said, and my balled fists opened. Closing the distance to Kaspar, who did not step back, my hands found Kaspar’s shoulders, then his neck, his hair, his face; I pressed my body to Kaspar’s - all this hasn’t been Kaspar’s doing, but my own … Surely, Kaspar took matters in his hands from there, but I’ve been an eager apprentice … Everything was so natural, so right, oh, it felt so good, so damn good …

Hell began. I couldn’t stay away from Kaspar - and Kaspar from me. I felt damned and elated at the same time. Torn between shame, guilt and horror over myself and my hunger for Kaspar’s body, his touches, his rough kisses - a sweet hell sometimes, but hell nevertheless. Lying on my back, Kaspar over me, his long, dark hair falling into his face, lynx eyes gleaming – pain, yes, and lust – why is something that feels so good wrong, a sin? Nowhere to turn - one doesn’t go and confess to lying with a man like a woman to the village priest. And I didn’t have the courage to tell Herr Kuno that Young Max, the eager and busy hunters’ apprentice, desired and enjoyed unspeakable things … Besides, not only I myself would become an outcast making such a confession, but I would also bring trouble upon Kaspar. “It is our nature,” Kaspar said, “we have been born that way,” and I wished I could believe him …

Torn between lust and guilt, I more than once thought of escaping the unholy relationship with him, but to avoid Kaspar was impossible, since we worked together and saw each other almost every day. I hungered for Kaspar, and Kaspar’s wild kisses told me that he hungered for me as well. He even curbed his drinking and spent less time with cards and dices. And Herr Kuno said one day that his apprentice seemed to serve as a good example for some people he could name. I however, couldn’t be glad about his praise, knowing that the change in Kaspar had other reasons than me being diligent and decent. What if Herr Kuno or one of my comrades would ever find out the truth? I began to think twice about every remark Herr Kuno or one of the other hunters would make referring to me. What did they know?

So I turned beet red when Hans and Friedrich, two fellow huntsmen, mocked me good-naturedly one evening when sitting at the inn that I must be blind not to see that Agathe, Herr Kuno’s daughter, liked me. My second thought, however, was that here a decent way out of my dilemma showed itself. Agathe – I’d seen her often - noticed her for the first time one day when I’d been praying in church – a shy, angelic, blonde girl. She was pretty, I could see that. And she was pious, went to church often. Maybe Agathe would save me from myself. So I began to show an interest in her –began to live a lie. Would I’d been able to end things with Kaspar without drawing Agathe into the mess … I knew then and it proved to be true later: Never would I be able to feel for her what I felt – no, feel – for Kaspar…

That I was seen together with Agathe very often could not be hidden from Kaspar. He said nothing, just gave me sidelong looks, as if he’d known what would come. We still met in secrecy somewhere in the woods, and when together with Kaspar, I thought that I would never want to give up what we did together, I even thought about running away with Kaspar – but where to? There is no place for men like us … When not with Kaspar, I pushed away these thoughts as the dreams of a madman, telling myself that my place would be at Agathe’s side. I was so bewildered that I didn’t know where I belonged any more …

Over time, as I spent more and more time with Agathe; my meetings with Kaspar became less and less frequent, so it must be clear for him that everything between us was over – or so I thought …

Nevertheless, the day I received Herr Kuno’s blessing for my marriage to Agathe, which would be held on the day of the Prince’s annual hunting party in three months’ time, I mustered all my courage and sought out Kaspar. I wanted to tell him the truth, felt that I owed my - comrade this much. And yes, courage it took, because I didn’t know how Kaspar would take the news. It was difficult sometimes to know where you were with him …

I found him in his room in the hunters’ lodge, sitting on his bunk at a small table, cleaning his rifle. Hans, Friedrich and Joseph, the other hunters, were at the inn, so I knew we were alone.

Kaspar looked up from his rifle, his face unusually blank and neutral. As if he seemed to know that I wouldn’t bring good news.

“What do you want?” he finally asked me. We had never met there, in this dark, narrow room, in which the bunk bed, the table, and a stool were the only furniture. A smell of gun oil, leather, sweat, burning wood, the forest and a hint of blood hung in the air. The smells I always connected with Kaspar …

He didn’t look dangerous, but somehow I was glad that the table was between us. Kaspar’s calm felt deceiving; I felt as if I was lying in wait near a thicket, from which no sound could be heard, but a wounded, furious wild boar could erupt at any moment.

“I have asked Herr Kuno for his daughter’s hand,” I finally managed.

Kaspar turned his attention back to his rifle, as if he hadn’t heard my words.

“So?” The word betrayed his calm. It came out as a hiss.

Danger was close. You had to be alert with all senses - I had felt like this before, shooting my first wild boar – but no, in the forest the tension had been hunting fever, joyful, elating. Here, in Kaspar’s room, my lips felt numb, fear – of what? – had turned my body to ice. Fear of Kaspar’s anger? Kaspar’s reactions couldn’t always be foreseen, but he couldn’t have done me any harm without harming himself. And even if he would lose his temper and go for my throat, I’d have been able to defend myself. No, I feared losing – comfort? Kaspar’s friendship? Or did I sense even then that I must have destroyed much more in Kaspar than I thought? A wounded, enraged wild boar would attack the hunters when cornered; I expected Kaspar would do the same. But seeing him remain sitting on his bunk, apparently unperturbed, frightened me more than any wild outbreak would’ve done.

“He has given his consent,” I went on. “So – what has been between us – must end.” For a moment, I’d felt relieved. The cat was out of the bag.

Kaspar looked up; outwardly calm, his eyes inscrutable, not a muscle moving in the tanned face. His calm was disturbing, horrifying.

“Come on, Kaspar,” I said in a low voice, as if calming an angry animal. “I have not been the first man, you – and surely others have married, and –“

“It’s how things go,” Kaspar interrupted me brusquely.

“Well then –“

Maybe I had deceived myself, I thought, maybe he didn’t take things so badly after all -

“Get out, then!”

With these words, he went on cleaning his rifle, acting as if I wasn’t there, had never been there. So I turned on my heels, leaving without a further word.

I thought I’d be relieved, but my heart felt even heavier. This evening, I laughed and talked lightly with my future bride – but deep inside I hungered for Kaspar’s touches, his strong body. That door had been closed for good now, and as relieved as I was, as much did I miss Kaspar already. Not only what we had done together, but also his friendship, for I knew I could bury any hope about us still remaining friends – For Kaspar, I didn’t exist any longer, maybe had never existed.

And things didn’t become better with time: I had hoped that deciding in favour of Agathe, ending my unholy bond with Kaspar, I would feel free, but instead I felt worse, as if I had woken a vengeful spirit which would haunt me … and the longing for Kaspar was still there. I tried to push these thoughts far away, to look ahead, to a future at Agathe’s side. And yet, at night, I saw Kaspar before me at the lake, naked, that knowing look in his eyes, telling me “We are of the same kind” …

Being a good shot, I’d never been worried about the shooting contest I would have to do to win Agathe’s hand – an old custom dating from hundreds of years ago: The young forester-to-be had to prove his marksmanship in the presence of the ruling Prince. Herr Kuno always liked to tell the story how the custom had come to pass: One of his ancestors had saved a poacher’s life by shooting a deer to which the man was chained. Acknowledging his marksmanship, the Prince had given Herr Kuno’s ancestor a forestry. From that day on, the successors in line had to do the shooting contest, before they were wed to their betrothed on the same day.

The months passed; Kaspar had kept his distance as well as he could. I overheard Joseph say one day that Kaspar had wanted to take his leave, but Herr Kuno had not let him go. As so many men had lost their lives in the war, every able-bodied huntsman was needed for the Prince’s services. I wondered for a while whether Kaspar wouldn’t leave anyway, without permission, but he stayed on, although keeping his distance.

And then, a few weeks before the date Prince Ottokar had set for the big hunting party, bad luck befell me. To my growing horror and despair, every shot I took missed its mark. The closer the day came, the worse it got. I heard my fellow hunters whisper: “At the moment, Max could not hit a boar or a deer if it was dragged before him in chains.” - “Well, it may happen that a young hunter misses a shot,” another one said in a mocking voice. “He is nervous about his upcoming wedding,” a third added. - “Oh well, Christian - haven’t you been nervous about your first shot?” Oh, I still hear their voices in my head, as if it’d been yesterday – although they always said something encouraging when speaking to me directly.

But the more or less good-natured mockery went on and on, and I was involved in more brawls than ever before in my life. My nerves were frayed. With every shot I missed, I became more nervous and despaired. I took my rifle apart and cleaned it over and over again; clandestinely I practised shooting in the woods; I even persuaded both Hans and Joseph to swap rifles with me for a day - to no avail. Both hunters did well with my rifle, but still every shot I took went amiss.

The peak of my shame was the shooting contest in the village, a day before the big hunting party. Kilian, the richest farmer of our village, took down the wooden star and mockingly paraded before me like a cock among the chickens, surrounded by almost all villagers. Again, I had missed every time. The mocking voices of the children in my ear, I went berserk and attacked Kilian. Herr Kuno broke up the brawl, admonished me sternly but fatherly; even Kilian offered his hand and invited me to join the dance – as if I’d been up to dancing that day!

In all my worries about the upcoming trial shot I had sometimes thought about turning to Kaspar for advice. I was almost sure that Kaspar would refuse to even speak to me, but I thought I’d try - and always decided against it at the last moment. How could I’ve left Kaspar and come running to him at the first sign of trouble? No, I had my pride.

However, just as if fate - or the devil - had staged the events, just when I was in that brawl with the mocking farmers, Herr Kuno arrived with some hunters, Kaspar among them. And later, when everybody had joined the dance at the inn and I sat alone, Kaspar came back.

Oh, had I known then that it was a trap! But I had no idea that you hated me so much you were out to destroy me! I still had the idea that perhaps we might be friends again after all …

So I took my heart in my hands - in my befuddled brain, there wasn’t any other hope for a decent, respectable life but winning Agathe’s hand. Losing her was unthinkable; I felt I wouldn’t have the nerve to woe another girl ever again. I still think so.

I was glad that you were there, Kaspar, when I needed you most…

Kaspar offered a drink, a vulgar song with it – but I couldn’t well refuse to drink to the health of the Prince, or Herr Kuno’s and Agathe’s health – and, finally – a solution to my dilemma. A terrible solution, just right for a despairing man … Devil’s help to make enchanted bullets – a deceit to achieve another deceit… Oh for the feeling of actually hitting my mark again with Kaspar’s rifle – a giant eagle, high above the clouds, unreachable for any huntsman – and yet it fell like a stone from the sky. Kaspar – the saviour from despair, as it turned out, the spinner of a devilish web …

Seeing all the horrors of Wolf’s Glen, becoming aware that Kaspar actually was in league with the dark forces, should have turned me away from him, and finally recognizing Kaspar’s betrayal should have broken our bond for good. I should curse him with my last breath, but God help me, even if he planned to destroy me, I can’t hold it against him… Kaspar was in a similar hell than I was, another hell of being alone, a hell of being different, of always having to hide his true nature …

Nevertheless, I retreated in disgust like the others when Kaspar, mortally wounded, crawled towards me, bloodied hands outstretched as if for help – I can’t deny, the shock about what Kaspar had done hit me with full force, and I was relieved that it was Kaspar lying in his blood, not Agathe. But then our eyes met for a moment, and never will I forget that look in Kaspar’s eyes: anger, hatred, despair, pain – shame? Remorse? – before he collapsed at my feet. He tried to say something – did he ask me to forgive him? The Devil must’ve taken the prey he could be sure of. He guided the last enchanted bullet to hit Kaspar.

The following events were in a haze for me; like an uninvolved bystander I heard Prince Ottokar sternly demanding an explanation; myself confess that I had made enchanted bullets together with the dead man – Ottokar cut me off brusquely, banishing me from his lands and ordering two hunters to throw the corpse of “the monster” into Wolf’s Glen. Just then the Holy Man from the Forest appeared and spoke for me – would he have spoken favourably had he known the full extent of my and Kaspar’s crime? Or did he know, but spoke for Agathe’s sake, knowing the crime, but hoping I would forever mend my ways now? Be it as it may, moved by the Holy Man’s words, Prince Ottokar mitigated my banishment to a probation year – a year under constant observation…

I shudder, as if awaking from a nightmare. Here I am, standing at the bottom of Wolf’s Glen in the dead of night. I look around. I must think about where to look. The princely hunting lodge lies to the East, so the hunters carrying Kaspar’s corpse came from there. They would not have climbed down into the gorge, but would have thrown their horrid burden down the precipice as quickly as they could. So Kaspar’s remains – even if wild animals have dragged the carcass around – will probably lie somewhere to the right, where the massive rocks go steeply up to the rim of the gorge.

“I will find you, Kaspar,” I whisper, carefully searching my way between the moss-covered boulders.

Oh, I tried to make the lie the truth, during my year of probation as well as the following year of my marriage to Agathe, I tried to live the life of a god-fearing huntsman and husband – with Kaspar out of the way, all my difficulties should have been solved … but I miss Kaspar, can’t forget him – It’s shameful: when making love to my wife, I think of being with Kaspar – and there has been hardly a night in which I do not see Kaspar crawl towards me, reaching for me with bloodied hands … What did he want to tell me with his last breath? This is why I have come to Wolf’s Glen in the dead of night. Maybe – maybe if I find at least some of Kaspar’s bones and bury them, maybe if I say a prayer over the grave, I can put the ghost of my past to rest, can find some peace of mind …

Of course it’s madness to look for remains which have been exposed to the elements and the teeth of wild animals for about two years - how much will be left, if anything at all? And how good are my chances to find what is left at night, in the shine of a lantern? – No, I mustn’t shrink from my task, even if the thought of Kaspar’s body, who gave such pleasures, his – beauty, rotten and ravaged – but isn’t this what remains of all of us in the end? A worm- eaten carcass – and that’s what you still covet – quiet! Be quiet!

“I’ll do what I can, Kaspar,” I whisper. “I cannot come by day – nobody ever goes to Wolf’s Glen, and if someone saw me … You’ve betrayed me, Kaspar, but in the end it was all my fault – all my fault – or did you bewitch me, Kaspar, did you bewitch me earlier already, so that I fell for you?”

For a while, I tried to convince myself that if Kaspar had bewitched me once so I would miss with every shot – why couldn’t he have bewitched me earlier, making me covet him, making me think unholy thoughts and do sinful things? But I know I’m deceiving myself; Kaspar had not encouraged me – at least not at first. It has all been my fault, my own fault …

I slip on a treacherous rock, almost lose my balance, catch myself at an overhanging stone – and find myself looking into a small cave. Something gleams whitish in the dark – I retrieve the lantern I’ve dropped – thank God it wasn’t broken –

“Oh Holy Mother of God!” I cross myself. I can make out a thighbone, the remains of a ribcage, hollow eye sockets, grinning teeth, tattered remnants of clothing. I must be sure … I crawl into the cave – wild animals have been at the body, have dragged parts of it away. Are these Kaspar’s earthly remains, or those of a stranger who has fallen down here by accident and has died a lonely death, unknown to anybody, missed by nobody? I must be sure … I crawl closer to the body, put down the lantern. Despite the places where the animals have been at it, the clothing is in fairly good shape: a leather vest, leather breeches – the clothing of a huntsman. No hope anymore that I’ve stumbled on the remains of an unfortunate, unknown wanderer – lying before me is Kaspar’s corpse alright.

A keening sound echoes from the cave walls. I flinch, but then I realize that it comes from my own mouth. I put a fist between my teeth to muffle the sounds to sobs. Finding Kaspar’s bones here, in the cave, that means he had been still alive when he was thrown down into the gorge… How long has he been lying at the bottom of the gorge, before he managed to drag his broken body across the rocks into the cave? How long has he died here, mortally wounded, with shattered bones, feverish, thirsty, in pain? I think not even the Prince or Herr Kuno would have wanted this fate for him …

“If I had known, Kaspar, if I had only known! I would have brought Old Barbara to you, she knows many things and never asks any questions, you said so yourself! She might’ve been able to nurse you back to health – you’ve always been strong, you would have made it with a little help – and you would have been able to get away – maybe we could have gotten away together –“

In your dreams, Max. Yes, one day, when we had had a little bit more time alone together, Kaspar told me the story about a faraway land in a time long ago, called Old Greece, where it had been no shame for a man to lie with another man. He had heard about it from a learned man who could read books and who could write a lot more than his name. What if there is another country such as this Greece somewhere now? But how could this ever be?

I shudder. I feel sick and nauseated. “But – but I couldn’t get away, Kaspar, they all watched me; Herr Kuno, Hans, Christian, Joseph – I had no time to get away, and I wasn’t ever left alone! Forgive me, Kaspar, forgive me!”

“I brought it onto myself,” a voice says, in a gust of wind rustling the trees in the gorge. Am I going mad – hearing voices in the wind?

“It was my own doing,” The wind again – in Kaspar’s voice.

I whisk around.

Not far from the cave entrance stands Kaspar as I last have seen him, his hands and face smeared with blood, just as in my dreams!

My eyes go to and fro between the remains in the cave and the apparition, so clear, so much as in life, that I’m almost tempted to embrace him – but there is the blood – so much blood – and his features are distorted in a mask of pain; although he is dead and shouldn’t feel anything any longer …

Another gust of wind, stronger this time.

“What do you want?” he asks me – standing so clearly before me, and yet so far away, as if there was an abyss between us – so familiar and yet so strange. A stranger from the realm of the dead.

“I – I wanted to see if I could gather your bones to bury them, so you might find some rest,” I answer the apparition, my voice shaky. I climb out of the cave, don’t know why. As if I could bring a distance between – him and me, as if I could run from a ghost... “Do not think I’d forgotten you! I – I tried, but I dreamt – of you –“ I stammer.

The next gust of wind hits me with full force and makes me stumble. A hollow laughter from this – apparition that looks like Kaspar - an icy feeling in my stomach. Tree branches creak dangerously.

“More so that you yourself might find some rest,” the ghostly Kaspar states brusquely. “It wasn’t me in your dreams; it was your own guilt that you cannot make up your mind! Neither can you stand by your wife, nor could you stand by me!”

I have to fight now to stay on my feet. He is right. I enjoyed the delicious sin we shared, but then I almost perished with shame and remorse. Tried to be like the others, wooing a girl, marrying her, lying with her – always longing for a man’s body – Kaspar’s body -

“You are right, Kaspar,” I have to shout now against the gusts of wind. “It’s tearing me apart!”

It’s madness, surely, it will make him angry, but I have to ask, have to know –

“Are you – are you damned? Because of what – we did? Are we both damned?”

As soon as the words have escaped my mouth, I feel ashamed. Again, I whimper in fear of damnation – but it was me who began the dance – Never forget that, Max –

Thick drops of rain are falling now, and there is a distant roll of thunder. Lightning flashes, and I stumble back again when I see the apparition standing closer than before. I see him so clearly – his sharp features, his lynx eyes – but his face is a mask of death – I want to embrace him, but between us lies the abyss of the grave…

“I run with the Wild Hunt now, not because I followed my nature with you, but because I made a pact with a demon to destroy innocent people, because I could not let you go, still cannot let you go, and at the same time curse the day I ever set eyes upon you. I cry for a chance to do some good, but what I do is pursue people as evil as I’ve been, together with creatures like me, without ever finding any rest. Call it being damned, if you want.”

I wipe the rain from my face.

“Is there something – something I can do?” I ask

Another rolling thunder, closer now, another laugh from the apparition.

“For you or for me? Gathering my bones will neither help me – nor you,” Kaspar answers. “Hark – the Wild Hunt is coming. Run, Max. You cannot help me! I ask from you what I couldn’t do either: let go of me!”

“No!” I cry against the raging wind. “How could I let you go – like this? There must be something I can do for you!”

The wind throws me down, and I crawl backwards.

“No! Did you not hear me, fool?!” Kaspar screams. “The Wild Hunt is coming! Run! That’s what you can do – get away from the gorge – run home! Be a good husband to Agathe and a good father to your son! And if you can, forgive me what I have done!”

What? Dear God, what did he just say?

I fall down and hold my head with both of my hands. “I have no son!” I scream against the wind which howls like a living being, against the torrents of rain. “And if I’ll ever have one – how could I be a father to him? I have tried to live what I saw as my dream – it’s a nightmare! It’s an endless lie! And yet I could not live like you, Kaspar! Could I have fought the temptation? Sometimes I wish I had never set eyes on you as well!”

Huge branches are torn from trees, the wind howls like a chorus of damned souls, the rain falls like a curtain, lightning tears up the sky and the thunder is deafening. The ghostly voice is barely a whisper, and yet I can understand every word above the raging elements:

“Did I not tell you that we are of the same kind? That Mother Nature makes some of her creatures different, but that there is nothing monstrous, unnatural about this? I have been with many men, also women, but I never, never felt about any of them as I felt about you! You – you made me a better man. This is why I sought to destroy you when you turned away from me. Forgive me, Max, even if there is no forgiveness for what I’ve done. – But you must go – go now! Hurry! It’s almost too late!”

“No!” I scream. “Don’t you understand?! I cannot go back and live a lie! The Holy Virgin is my witness that I tried! But Agathe deserves an honest man at her side who truly loves her. As for me - let me be with you, Kaspar!” I fall to my knees, pleading, feel tears running down my face – or is it the rain? - “If there is no place for us among the living, maybe there will be one for us among the dead? I should never have forsaken you! Forgive me – forgive me, as I forgive you!”

The ghost’s eyes blaze, understanding, he laughs wildly, joyfully – and over the roaring thunder, the torrents of rain, the howling wind I can hear ghostly voices shout, dogs howl and bark; the thunder of hooves, the sound of horns – so I never hear the creaking and crashing of the huge tree falling down, burying me under its weight –

I feel strong arms around my waist – look into Kaspar’s sharp face, shrink from the creatures around me – half man, half wolf or boar, a headless soldier sitting on a giant horse, rattling skeletons chained to deer, hirsute naked women riding on boars or flying through the air on giant eagles – and realize that I am with them, am part of the Wild Hunt, at Kaspar’s side. All fear leaves me and I cry out in joy and triumph –

Chapter Text

A village, mid-1650s, two years after the events told in part one, two, and three

 

Everything has gone well. Ännchen has given birth to her second son. Mother and child are well and healthy, and Hans is a proud father.

Time flies. I remember the day – Max’s probation year had just begun – when Ännchen – unusually shy and hesitant for her forthcoming nature – asked me to be her bridesmaid – but only if it wouldn’t hurt me, as I still would have to wait for Max. I laughed away her misgivings; it had to be expected that there would be a wedding soon, if not mine, then hers. Now I share their happiness, but at the same time, I feel a little pang of envy … Max and I have been married for a year now, and yet our union has not been blessed with a child …

Just as I leave Hans’s and Ännchen’s house, a bout of sickness and nausea overcomes me. It might be because I’ve been awake all night, or it might be – could it be possible? I’ll have to wait and see. If the sickness recurs, this might mean that I, too, am with child. I will have to make sure, and then I will tell Max. Perhaps the prospect of becoming a father will lighten his mood.

I know he is not happy. He is the kindest husband I could wish for, but he is not happy. He tries to hide his bouts of melancholy from me, supported me in every way during the hard times of Father’s illness and death last year, even found it in him to cheer me up – but I – I hardly succeed in making him happy …

It’s not my fault, I know. A dead man’s shadow seems to follow Max – the worst of Kaspar’s curse seems to have been avoided, but still I feel as if he stood between my husband and me… Is it indeed the dead man’s curse – or is it Max’s own conscience, poisoning his mind?

Still I do not know what the attraction was between them. Maybe Max feels bad at the thought of his former friend’s bones rotting in Wolf’s Glen. If Kaspar had been my friend, would I not think the same? And yet it hurts me that Max’s thoughts still are with the man who tried to destroy us both.

What was the nature of their friendship? What is the reason why Max rarely lies with me? I am not misshapen, maybe I’m even pretty – so any man who was my husband would wish to lie with me – but if he lies with me, Max closes his eyes, as if he didn’t wish to see me – Then he kisses me, swears that it is not my fault, that the gang of poachers with their loops and irons and the damage they do in forest are on his mind – I cannot talk to him about what I think, I cannot talk to anyone – not to Ännchen, not to the Holy Man of the Forest – my suspicion is too damning. I hardly dare to think – has Max lain with Kaspar as a man and a woman lie together? Is this possible at all? Uttering a word of this to someone would make my beloved husband an outcast – just when he is in good standing with the other huntsmen and the Prince again.

Maybe – maybe things will change for the better when I am actually with child, will bear him a son or a daughter … And maybe, if the child is healthy, he will want more children, lie with me more often and finally forget … I’m sure he will be a good father.

When I enter our house, Max is away – out in the forest already, to look whether the poachers have done new damage. And there has been a savage thunderstorm during the night, which will have ravaged the forest. Nothing unusual. Franz, the hunters’ hand, is away, too, so I only find Old Marie at home, and tell her the good news about Ännchen’s second boy.

“They will christen him Wilhelm,” I close.

“What a joy!” Marie exclaims. “Would that you and Herr Max will soon have a child of your own!” She puts a hand to her mouth, looking embarrassed. “I am sorry, Frau Agathe, I didn’t want to –“

This is when I throw my caution to the wind and tell her about my bout of sickness in the morning.

She claps her hands together. “What a blessing! Will you tell Herr Max already? He’ll be so happy!”

“I want to wait and see if it is truly so. Maybe in another two or three days,” I answer. “It should be the day of my monthly bleeding, and if I will not bleed …”

“I will not say a word!” Marie solemnly promises. “But these will be news that will take his mind of the accursed poachers for sure! Wish they’ll find them soon – the whole matter’s eating at him. He must’ve left half night today – neither Franz nor I’ve seen him this morning!”

Marie’s last remark worries me. If Max was up so early, he might have been out already when the thunderstorm began … But why? Of course, the Prince is impatient, he wants the poachers caught and brought to justice as soon as possible, but he knows that Max and his huntsmen, supported by the princely bodyguard, do what they can. – But what else drove Max out so early? Did sleep flee him again? Did his nightmares torment him, and I wasn’t there to chase the shadows away – at least would have tried my best? What if – God forbid! – the dead huntsman called him?

I push my worries away, true to Ännchen’s motto that whims are bad guests, and do my daily chores.

At noon, I prepare food for the huntsmen, who will be hungry when they return from their work in the forest. Friedrich and Joseph pass by for a short meal. I ask after Max, but they haven’t seen him all day.

This is unusual. Not that he leaves early and will stay away all day and even the following night, if his duties make this necessary. But usually, he gives me word, either in person or through another of the huntsmen.

Evening falls, and I become restless. My unrest makes me walk over to Hans’s and Ännchen’s house again. Hans is home. He tells me that he, too, hasn’t seen Max all day, believed him to be at the Prince’s hunting lodge with some of the hunters and workmen.

“Maybe they have finally caught the poachers,” Ännchen says.

Or – God forbid! – he encountered one or more of the poachers alone, and – I push the thought away and return home, hoping that Max will be already there or will arrive soon.

Marie and Franz are sitting at the kitchen fire.

“Herr Max isn’t home yet,” Franz greets me. “And no word from him either.”

Needless to say I have a restless night, despite my exhaustion. Images of Max before my inner eyes – ever changing: Max, lying dead in a remote part of the forest, killed by a poacher’s bullet or knife – Max, wounded, fighting against wild animals, lured by the blood – Max, carried on a stretcher by some woodsmen, wounded, but alive – Max, brought home to me dead – Max, walking in the door, pale and exhausted, but unharmed, telling me they caught the head of the poachers, or even all of them.

At dawn, I get up. There have been more images: Max, torn, despaired, jumping into the river, Max, embraced by dead, rotten arms, pulled down into Wolf’s Glen – I cannot bear this any longer!

A bout of sickness makes me double over, just as Marie enters the kitchen. She holds my head, reaches me a wet cloth to wipe my face with when it’s over. Oh, if I could rejoice – if Max would just walk through the door now!

A knock. My heart does a leap, but it is Friedrich, taking off his hat, greeting us in his shy, a little clumsy sway.

“Did Herr Max come home? The Prince wishes to see him,” he says, turning his hat in his hands.

“No, he didn’t come home, “ I answer with a worried heart, “So he isn’t with the Prince’s men either?”

Friedrich’s honest face is worried. “Whomever I asked, nobody has seen him, so I thought he would be home, although he usually would’ve given word to someone …” His voice trails off, and my worst fears grip me, so I can hardly breathe. My blood is rushing in my ears, and I hardly hear Friedrich go on: “I will tell the Prince. We’ll search for him high and low. And we’ll find him!”

With a brusque nod to Marie and me, he leaves. I do not doubt his words, but this doesn’t take away my anxiety. Even if I should be at home, should Max walk in the door, I seek out Ännchen again, after I have done the most important chores in the house.

Franz has left with Friedrich, and I leave Marie who prepares a huge pot of soup – the one from yellow turnips Max likes so much …

“Herr Max will be hungry when he comes home,” she says. Preparing his favourite food is her way of drawing Max home – simple, innocent magic – a way of keeping up hope.

Ännchen is up again, feeding her youngest son. Wilhelm has her eyes and nose, and a shock of fluffy brown hair echoes Hans’s dark curls. Young Kuno stumbles up to me, grabbing my legs for hold, hiding his head in the folds of my dress, then looks up at me laughing. It’s a game we play – he “hides” and I say “Where’s Kuno? I can’t see him any longer!” Then he looks up at me with his dark eyes – Hans’s heritage – and laughs and giggles, as if he wanted to say “Fooled you again, didn’t I?”

Soon, he will be able to run around and hide somewhere in the room – under the table or the wooden bench – in the larder, or, when he will be bit older, outside in the stables. In the next months, it will be difficult for me to keep up with him, if all goes well … And then, if God so wills, I will have a boy or a girl of my own, a playmate for Kuno and Wilhelm.

Playing with Young Kuno, seeing Ännchen feed Wilhelm, whom I will hold over the basin as his godmother next Sunday, takes my thoughts a bit away from my worries about Max. I manage a smile at my friend and cousin. Ännchen smiles back.

“That’s right, Agathe,” she encourages me. “You’ll see, everything will turn out well. Max will walk in the door; he will have caught some of the poachers, who are already in the hands of the Prince’s men!”

Her positive mood is contagious.

“Maybe I’ll have good news for him then,” I answer, ignoring the fear in my heart, “But since he’s not here yet, you’ll be the one to hear them before he does.”

Ännchen looks at me, probing.

“You look a little like a cat that’s been at the cream – and since you rarely have that look, dear friend, I’d say they must be very good news! Are you – with child?”

“I believe so.”

Ännchen jumps up, hugs me fiercely, still holding her youngest. She dances with him through the room and drags me into the dance. I keep Kuno from joining and making us fall. Oh, Ännchen, my friend since childhood days, knows me so well!

“You shouldn’t jump around, you should rest,” I scold her mildly, smiling, though. Ännchen will always be Ännchen, despite being a married woman and a mother at that.

“It’s time anyway for me to be up and about again,” she answers and hugs me again. “Agathe! These are good news indeed! Max will be so happy!”

My answer is cut off by a knock at the door. My heart sinks when Ännchen opens and curtseys. The Prince himself enters, with two of his bodyguards, followed by the Old Man from the Forest, Hans and Friedrich. Their faces are grave. This does not bode well …

The Prince gently takes my hands, lifts me up from my curtsey and leads me to the chair Ännchen had vacated in joyful dance only a few moments ago.

“I am sorry,” he says, and I know, I know Max is dead. He will never hold his child in his arms, play with his son or daughter – never will he smile at me or take me into his arms again – never will I tell him he’ll become a father.

I look into the Prince’s face. I see no ruler there, of noble blood, just an old man, who knows loss – his wife, one of his sons – and who feels with me in my pain.

Darkness threatens to engulf me – I rally – I must know –

“Where -? How?” I ask. The Prince hesitates, but the Hermit takes pity on me, does not tell me any lies to lighten my burden. He steers me away from the others, out of the house before he answers, and his answer confirms what I sensed and feared already.

“We found him in Wolf’s Glen,” he says.

A strange calm comes over me – or is it just the shock?

“The dead huntsman called him – and he followed his call,” I whisper. “He did not –“ I hesitate – “he did not end his life by his own hand?”

“He was killed by a falling tree,” the Holy Man reassures me. “Child – how much did you guess? We also found human bones in and around a small cave at the bottom of the gorge. These are most probably the remnants of the huntsman who was killed by the enchanted bullet.”

I cross myself.

“So he – Kaspar – wasn’t dead when the Prince ordered him to be thrown into Wolf’s Glen?” The dizziness and nausea I feel have nothing to do with my being with child. Kaspar’s death must have been far more gruesome than anybody thought … I hope that at least Max did not have to suffer …

“Did he -?”

The Holy Man seems to guess my thoughts.

“Unlike the huntsman you called Kaspar, Max must have been dead immediately,” he answers. I try to bring order to my racing thoughts, when the Holy man continues. “There also was a lantern and a spade lying close to Max.”

“A spade?” Things become even more clear. As I thought, Max went to Wolf’s Glen to bury Kaspar’s remains, to put his soul to rest – at night, in darkness and secrecy – God knows for how long he had planned to do this … I knew that his thoughts had been with Kaspar – his heart had been given, and he never had been mine … Now I know for sure.

But there is something else I kneed to know. I must ask the Holy Man. He should know …

“I think you know, too, Holy Man, that Max felt – different. Tell me, if this can be in a man’s nature, will he be damned? Is this a sin?”

The Holy Man looks at me sharply. There is a long silence, before he answers.

“You are an unusual woman, my child. Let me tell you that maybe there is more room in God’s creation than we can imagine. – I finished what Max had come to do and buried the huntsman’s bones. Maybe there is a way in God’s worlds for him to make amends for what he did. As for Max – he loved – he loved this man and he loved you. He may have failed both of you, but we cannot be the judges of that. God may be less judgmental and more forgiving than we can imagine. - What is most important though, young woman – you must live! Even if you may not think so now, life lies before you, with all its sorrows as well as many joys!”

Finally, I can cry, long and hard. For Max, for my hopes for us. I feel the Hermit gently leading me – where? He releases my hands, and someone else takes them. I look into Friedrich’s gentle, worried face.

We bury Max in the small churchyard of our village. Again, the Prince bows to the will of the Holy Man from the Forest and keeps his silence about where he had been found. And if the Prince keeps his silence, so do his huntsmen.

I miss Max and I cry often, but the Holy Man’s words give me peace of mind. Ännchen and her family cheer me up, turn my thoughts to life, prepare me for the new life that grows in me. And last but not least, there is Friedrich, with his sweet, honest face, a bit awkward and shy, but a brave man and a good hunter …

Six months after we’ve laid my beloved to rest, I give birth to a strong, healthy boy. I have christened him Max, after his father. And another six months later, Friedrich asks me to marry him. I accept.

The worries and dark shadows have lifted. I pray for them to stay away from me and the ones I love …

Chapter Text

Max

I’m the spots of sunlight falling through the trees painting patterns on the ground at your feet. Perhaps you’ll see my face in the leaves of the trees moving in a light breeze. Maybe you’ll hear me whisper your name when the wind rustles in the trees.

I’m the soil, the countless little creatures working in it, making it fertile. I’m the worm – and I’m the young plant shooting up from a seed in the ground, to become a strong tree. I’m the bushes and their berries, the fruit of the chestnut, the oak, beech, and birch. I’m the warm rain and the mushrooms growing in the moist.

I will watch you while you gather the fallen branches to kindle your fires, the mushrooms, chestnuts and berries. Walk with respect and gratitude, and no harm will befall you.

I’m the deer and the mouse, the bear and the wild pig, the fox and the rabbit, suckling their young. I’m the woodpecker and the pheasant, the sparrow and the cuckoo, who will predict you a long, long life. When you drink from the clear little brook or cool your face and neck in it on a hot summer day, it is my kiss and caress for you.

Listen to the horns of the hunt, the barking of the dogs, the voices of the huntsmen resounding in the forest, and hear my joy. I’m with you, young huntsman, I’m the bullet that hits its mark, guided by your sharp eyes and your sure hand.

I will keep the fear from your heart, wanderer, who has lost his way. Fear not the falling night nor the two huntsmen you might encounter. We mean you no harm, will steer your feet away from Wolf’s Glen, so you will find your way again.

Maybe you have come to die, because you think all the world and Heaven have forsaken you. Life is a gift, though – but it is not for me to be your judge. Let me just tell you that ending your life will lead to another life. Life is endless. I know, I am part of the circle. I’m the soft snow of winter, covering your body, but I’m also the buds of spring.

You might come as lovers, too. Your secrets will be safe with me and my dark companion. One of you in a thousand may be able to see him making love to me. Avert your eyes, and no harm will come to you. Do not watch, you might fall for his strong body, piercing eyes and handsome, sharp features – but his kisses, burning as ice, are mine – as are his fiery caresses. You might run and cross yourself, abhor from the sight of two men lying together, but love has many ways. Maybe you know…

We will still be here when the soil will take your old and worn-out body, we will be here when your mother smiles at you while you drink from her breasts. We will be here in the wind, in the rain, even when the forest is no more. We’re in the hearts of men.

 

Kaspar

I’m the bullet that hits its mark, I’m the crossbow’s arrow. I’m the blood and the soil that drinks it up. I’m the death cry of the mouse or rabbit, I’m the wolf’s fangs and the beak and claws of the eagle.

I’m the thunderstorm, the raging gale of winter; I’m the falling tree, the rock that crashes down.

Your foot crushes the beetle or the little snake’s skull; your twill stops the song of the chickadee; you tear off burrs and throw them into your sister’s hair; your push sends your little brother into the brambles; you grab the girl’s tresses, sling them round your hand and pull on them, while your other hand forces her down, pushes up her skirts; you look greedily and your fingers scratch and scramble where they have no place – I will be the boar sleeping in the thicket, the old boar, deeply hidden in the forest where you have no place to be. You may flee from me, but you will not escape my tusks …

You lay out snare after snare, you take more than you need; steal all the eggs from a pheasant’s nest; you kill the does and the wild sows leading young; you wound the creatures of the forest to watch them die – do not worry. I know about a long, slow death… One false step, and you will find yourself down in the gorge, your bones shattered; whimpering for release, finally welcoming the wolves and vultures that will tear the flesh away from your bones …

Lure the innocent child, the unsuspecting girl into the forest with sweet words, have your way without asking – your prey may get free, before you can silence them forever – I will be the anger of the throng in pursuit; I will be the stone or twig ensnaring your fleeing foot – and I will be the hemp round your throat, the sturdy branch holding you up, the wind in which you will dance your last dance …

I’m the hunger in your children’s’ faces, the tears in your wife’s eyes, when you come home drunk from the inn and beat and torment them. I also will be the tree crashing down, or the angry bear maiming you to death, setting your family free.

I am the darkness where my companion is the light, and I see the darkness in your heart. Destroy the forest in your ever-growing greed, poison the water, the very air that you breathe – and I will be the poison.

Do not reckon on my light companion to mitigate my anger. Sometimes he might – and I might let you escape. Sometimes, though, you might wish death had taken you, then … before I got to you.

But tread with respect, enjoy the cool breeze in gratitude and with a joyful heart – then you will never need to fear me, seeing my face in the shadows beneath the trees. I am the forest and I will protect it from all harm, but to you, brave huntsman, diligent forester, peaceful wanderer, I bid my welcome.