The Ice People 9 - Without Roots/C5 Chapter 5
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The Ice People 9 - Without Roots/C5 Chapter 5
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C5 Chapter 5

When Mikael approached the house, the lady in black was at the gates once more.

“The stables will be empty for you tonight,” she said. “Ten o’clock?”

Mikael just nodded. They walked up to the house together. Birgitte came running out with a big shawl around her shoulders. She looked so touchingly sweet that he felt quite warm inside.

“Welcome, Mikael,” she said, stretching out both her hands. She kissed him lightly on the cheek and he trembled with delight. She did not deign to look at his companion, the lady in black. She walked quietly away, further up towards the house and disappeared around the corner.

What an awful mood there was between the relatives! Birgitte showed Mikael into the drawing room and brought the puppy to show him.

“See,” she said proudly as they sat down. “See how well fed he is.”

Mikael stretched out his hands and took the little creature. The puppy rolled up in his arms. It was still shaking as if it had run a temperature. Well, yes, its stomach was quite round, but Mikael could see all its ribs and the overall impression it made on Mikael was pathetic. Its eyes were watery, its wounds were running, and it had problems with its ears, holding its head at an angle, often shaking it.

“He’ll soon be alright again,” said Birgitte in a sugared tone.

“What’s its name?”

There was a baffled silence. “Uhm ... Mickie ... after you.”

“Oh. So he didn’t have a name until I turned up?”

“Oh, yes he did. But I changed the name because you were the one who found him for me.”

He smiled. “Hi Mickie,” he said tenderly to the dog who did not react. It had pressed its nose right into Mikael’s armpit where it seemed to be happy. Little by little, it stopped shaking. After a while, it began to lick his hand gently. Mikael felt such tenderness towards the little dog.

Somebody was observing them from the gallery. The lady in black shook her head warningly at him. Mikael became irritated. He wanted to be alone with Birgitte and didn’t like going behind her back. He wanted to reveal the presence of the lady up there, but her will was stronger than his. She said nothing but her presence still made him hesitate.

How irritating! Here he was together with the wonderful Birgitte, and he couldn’t concentrate on her because of a troublesome woman up on the gallery and a puppy in his lap. And now her parents had turned up. Damn, damn, damn.

Even Birgitte looked irritated at being interrupted, which warmed Mikael’s heart a bit. The lady in black vanished, probably retiring to the room that he could not see up there.

“Ugh, it’s terribly cold,” complained the Countess. “If only we could light a fire in the fireplace.”

The Count and Countess were ever so kind, chatting with the puppy, which snuggled up even closer in Mikael’s armpit, and thanking Mikael for his consideration towards Birgitte. Mikael felt bad about having wished that they were far away.

He asked a question to which the count replied: “Yes, the village belongs to our estate. Of course, all the peasants are serfs and own nothing, poor souls. But we give them permission to live in the houses, which, of course, they don’t maintain, and at the least sign of danger, they flee. They’re ungrateful and rude. If only you understand to treat the Russians properly, they’re quite a jolly people. How long do you plan to stay in this village, Mr. Mikael?”

‘You’ve already asked me that,’ thought Mikael, frowning. Birgitte saw his irritation and hurried to interrupt: “Mikael hopes to be allowed to stay in our village for a very long time. He and I have become very good friends.”

He looked at her and felt how something in him changed. His unsatisfactory life so far vanished! Never before had he felt such a bond with another person. At that very moment, Mikael realised that he wanted to do more than just admire Birgitte. He wanted to be close to her, take her in his arms – and love her.

He was shocked at himself. He had a wife and a child at home, and his code of honour had always been very strict. But on the other hand, he had never been exposed to temptations before. Besides, he had never loved his wife and had no idea what love was. But this was something he wanted – and it went against his morals.

‘Oh, God,’ he thought. ‘How can you be so cruel and ungrateful? Letting me meet the one and only woman for me far too late in life? Will happiness never be bestowed on me in this life? I have no right to show Birgitte that I love her.’

But Birgitte had seen love in his eyes and had to turn away her face to conceal the triumphant smile spreading across her face. Her mother had also noticed his agony. She was the one who had insisted that they go into the drawing room to disturb the two young people’s tête-à-tête. A love story that fizzles out too quickly does not generate valuable information. It was probably best to keep the young Swede on tenterhooks a bit longer. He was sufficiently unsuspecting and would reveal the plans of the Swedes, provided things did not get too rushed. Birgitte was too young to handle the situation properly. She was far too ready to go to bed with the handsome young man, and when he had been given what he wanted, qualms of conscience would set in and that would be the end of squeezing information out of him.

Mikael’s heart was pounding strongly and painfully. He gazed at Birgitte’s small hand that rested on the table, so white against the deep red tablecloth. He looked at the soft lines of her throat and graceful bosom. For the first time in his life he desired a woman so fiercely that it was as if his chest was about to explode.

He sat talking to all three of them for a long time, which didn’t matter because he had the afternoon off and was first to be on duty the following morning.

At twilight, the servant served an exquisite dinner. Big silver candelabras with wax candles warmed the room and torches of resin-coated wood were lit and mounted on the walls.

“We’re certainly not short of food,” said von Steierhorn, self-satisfied. “We don’t have to share any of it with the disloyal peasants.”

Mikael thought of the old man he had spoken to earlier in the day and registered a certain discomfort at the count’s words.

The puppy peed on the carpet and was severely reprimanded. Feeling uneasy, Mikael took it with him outside but, of course, it was unable to relieve itself more, and he carried it in again and said that he had better be on his way home.

Oh, dear, no, they all insisted, he was certainly not to leave. They would be very upset if he left. Of course, he had no way of knowing that they were concocting all sorts of tricky questions in their minds. His love for Birgitte was tearing at him, and so was his guilt. He couldn’t just get up and leave.

He wondered whether her parents would retire for the evening. A large grandfather clock showed that it was nine o’clock. In an hour’s time he was to go out to the cart shed and fetch whatever-it-was for the mystical owner of the estate.

Suddenly a door was opened with a loud bang somewhere in the house. A freezing cold gust of wind swept through the room, making the torches throw crackling flames up along the walls. All the candles in the candelabras went out.

“Damn it” barked the count. “Why can’t you ever close that balcony door properly? It’s flung open again!” he shouted at the servant, who rushed to close the door.

The candles were then lit once more and the servant left. Finally, the count had found the right questions that would reveal the Swedish plans about Poland and Russia. He sighed in a feigned manner. “I do hope that the Swedes will arrive in Krakow before the Russians. After all, we ...”

The Countess von Steierhorn gave a start. She sniffed the air. “Do I smell smoke?”

“That’s just because the torches flickered from the wind a moment ago!”

“No, this is much stronger.“

The others sniffed the air in the drawing room. No one was sure.

“Where is it coming from?” asked von Steierhorn sharply.

Then they heard a crackling and crunching sound quite nearby. It came from the gallery! A spark must have ignited something flammable up there.

Everybody jumped up. The Countess ran towards the stairs. Birgitte wanted to follow suit, but fell over the puppy. Swearing, she kicked it, so that it hit the wall with a surprised yelp.

Mikael was shocked. He ran over and lifted up the puppy. It was still yelping pathetically. He tried to calm it down. Now he understood where its many wounds came from. His newly discovered love for Birgitte died on the spot.

The Count and Countess had no time to think of the puppy, but Birgitte realised that she was losing her grip on Mikael.

She was full of despair, both genuine and feigned. ”Oh, dear. What have I done? I didn’t see that it was the puppy. I thought it was a shoe, I-”

“Hurry up!” shouted her mother. She had come out on the gallery. “The floor is burning up here.”

Both she and her husband were up there now and were stamping on the floor to try to kill the flames. And then something unbelievable happened. To their horror, Birgitte and Mikael saw the gallery floor sway. On the ground floor, in front them, the posts that supported the gallery gave way with a horrible creak. The Count and Countess screamed and slowly, horrifically slowly, the balustrade fell away, the posts broke and the entire gallery collapsed. Fortunately, the torches on the balustrade went out in the fall, as did the small flames they had been trying to put out. Mikael, who was still holding the puppy, took Birgitte by the arm and pulled the shocked girl after him to the other end of the room. The screams from the two unfortunate parents echoed in their ears. Then the place was completely quiet.

When the dust had settled, a big pile of plants, broken posts and beams lay on the floor. Next to the pile stood the servant with a baffled look on his face. Birgitte began to scream, but Mikael had no time to concentrate on her. He put the frightened, kicking puppy down and swiftly began to lift things off the top of the pile. The servant leapt into action. Birgitte was hysterical and of no use at all.

“We’d better be careful or it could fall right down into the cellar,” said the servant. “The floor has given way in several places.”

“Yes, “murmured Mikael stiffly. “I thought I saw an arm here...”

He felt a knot in his stomach and didn’t want to think of the cellar. With difficulty, they managed to free first the Count then the Countess. Fortunately, they had landed more or less on top of the pile and both were alive, although the Countess was badly wounded.

They placed each of them on a sofa in the banqueting hall. The Count quickly gained consciousness and he and the Countess were both taken care of by the servant.

“This floor has always been weak,” said the servant. “But we supported it with some beams down in the cellar.”

Mikael turned green and looked away. The clock in the banqueting hall struck ten.

“Maybe it would be best to call the doctor for the Countess,” said Mikael.

“There’s- there’s no doctor in the village anymore,” the Count managed to stutter.

“Then I’ll send for our barber-surgeon and some soldiers.”

Now the Countess had also come round. She tried in vain to get on her feet. “We’ll manage,” she said with clenched teeth. “My wounds are only superficial. A knock on the head and something or other that has broken in my chest. It hurts but ...”

“We’ll manage,” hissed the Count. “We don’t need help.”

“I must say you’re brave,” said Mikael. Then he turned to the servant. “Please see to it that they get everything they need. I’ll be back with dressings and medicines. However, there’s just something that I need to fix first.”

The last sentence came out almost angrily.

The Count got up as soon as Mikael was out of the door. “He mustn’t bring any Swedes from the camp! We don’t want any snoopers here. How are you?” he asked his wife.

“The shock was the worst. I agree, we must manage this ourselves. Not everybody is as simple and naïve as Mikael. We can’t risk having a much sharper mind come over here.” She allowed herself to sink down again, moaning with pain. “How could it have happened? I just don’t understand.”

Mikael rushed furiously across the courtyard towards the building that must be the cart shed. Even from a distance he saw the proud woman in black. He was so agitated that he was shaking all over.

“Whatever have you done?” he asked. “I was almost party to murder! It’s certainly not thanks to you that those up in the house are still alive.”

She gave him an indulgent, barely visible smile.

“They’re too fat,” she said matter-of-factly. “They shouldn’t be walking up on the gallery at all.”

Mikael remembered that she had stood up there slightly earlier. Of course, she was much slimmer, but nevertheless ...

He was fuming. “It was attempted murder! I’ll have to report this to the Governor General in Riga.”

“Yes, do so by all means,” she smiled teasingly as if this was precisely what she had wanted. “Now would you please break open the door I’ve spoken about?”

“No,” said Mikael. “I don’t want to take part in any more of your viciousness.”

“We have no time to waste,” she went on as if she had not heard him. “Hurry up!”

“No, I-”

The woman just looked at him. As he looked into her strange eyes, Mikael was struck by a sickening dizziness. Her skin was almost transparent and the area around her eyes was bluish. An unpleasant smile played on her lips, confident of victory.

Mikael was furious, but went inside the cart shed. He despised himself for his weakness but he had no higher wish than to be finished, so that he could leave this house forever. He would hurry up with this last task and then fetch his medicines and drugs for the wounded. But then that would absolutely be it.

The door in the corner was locked and there was no key. He turned around to ask the woman about it, but she had vanished. All he could see in the darkness were a lot of carts, simple and luxurious, standing next to each other.

Mikael, fuming with anger, grabbed an axe that stood by the wall. He began to attack the door and his fury gave him a strength that he had no idea he possessed. With a shattering sound, the lock yielded and he tore open the ruined door.

The room beyond was a small, dark room with harnesses and other stuff. At first, he couldn’t see anything, but then he lit a torch he had brought with him and he saw something that made his eyes open wide. Two men lay tied up in different corners, secured to the crossbeams of the wall. They seemed to be in a very poor state.

“Good God, what on earth is this?” he exclaimed, rushing over to the man who was nearest. With a knife, he released first one and then the other.

They were barely conscious and all they could do was stretch their aching limbs out on the floor. Mikael looked about. There was a bucket nearby, which looked clean enough, and he knew that there was a well in the courtyard. Once outside, he searched for the woman in black, but she was nowhere to be seen. Mikael cursed her once more. He could have done with some help from her now.

What a strange woman she was! First, she tried to kill somebody, and then she saved two others. All with his help. Could there be some sort of link between the two events? What if the von Steierhorns had locked these two men up? And the woman in black had tried to help them?

Mikael fetched some water from the well and ran back inside. One of the men had managed to pull himself up and now sat with his back against the wall. He gratefully drank the ice-cold water. It proved more difficult to get something in the other man. But finally, he felt well enough to stutter a few words.

“Who are you?” he asked in a language Mikael did not understand, but the meaning was clear enough from the man’s tone. This man was dressed simpler than the other man, so Mikael guessed that they were master and servant.

He explained that he only spoke German. Then the more sophisticated man, who was very young and in very bad shape, said in German, “Thank you so much, whoever you are! If you’d waited just a bit longer, we would have been dead.”

Mikael introduced himself and asked who they were.

“Don’t you know?” I’m Count von Steierhorn, the owner of this estate, and this is my servant.”

So the old man from the village was right after all. The owner of the estate was a young man. A good man, the old man had added.

“But,” said Mikael, confused. “Who’s up at the estate now then? The couple with their daughter, Birgitte?”

The count made a grimace. “Robbers, soldiers of fortune. Their name’s von Steierhorn but they’re very distant relatives and they own nothing. They happened to pay a visit here when a message arrived to say that the Tzar’s troops were on their way here. Then they took advantage of the situation when everybody fled from the village. They attacked us and took over the estate, together with one of my miserable servants who betrayed me. I suppose the idea was that we were to die here. Once again, thank you young man!”

“But I wasn’t the one who-” Suddenly he caught sight of the lady in black out by the door. She shook her head energetically, and he fell silent immediately.

‘Damned secretive woman,’ he thought angrily. ‘What does she want?’

He told them what had happened to the gallery, but said nothing about his share in the miserable event. After all, it was through no fault of his own.

“I see, so they’re wounded up there,” said the real count grimly. “That suits us fine. Young man, in the house next to this cart shed there’s a gun. Find it and load it. Then the three of us will go up to the main building. We won’t shoot them, but they must leave immediately!”

Mikael did as he was told. He assumed that the woman in black was this man’s wife. They seemed to be similar in age. Her reasons to stay away were beyond him and anyway, they ought to sort out their marital differences themselves. He was fed up and just wanted to get away as quickly as possible.

When he returned, both men had managed to get to their feet by themselves, but had to hold on to Mikael as they walked. On their way across the courtyard, Mikael noticed that at last it had begun to snow.

The puppy had clearly missed Mikael and ran out to find him. Now it staggered on shaky legs towards him, with its head tilted to one side. Mikael stopped and the dog curled up on his feet.

He bent down. “Who owns this little dog?” he asked tenderly. “Is he yours?”

“Oh, that one?” the count managed to say with difficulty. “Is it still alive? It was an experiment that went wrong. We bred it, and it really shouldn’t be allowed to live.”

“But it’s a fine little soul,” argued Mikael.

“Soul? What a peculiar expression about a dog. It’s nothing to write home about, and we’d actually thought of killing it when all this happened.”

Mikael felt ill at ease. They entered the house and soon overpowered Birgitte and the servant, which proved easy with the threat of the gun, and the two others were already incapacitated. Mikael was asked to bring a Swedish officer and a couple of men who could take care of them.

“How am I to thank you, young man?” asked the estate owner when Mikael was about to leave.

Mikael was so tired. He didn’t want to look at Birgitte, the only girl he had ever felt drawn to. All his emotions had been blown away and transformed to dust. There would soon be no trace of them.

“I don’t need any thanks. Just please try to be on good terms with your wife again. That’s all I want.”

“My what?”

“Yes, or whoever she is. The woman who owns this estate.”

The Count wrinkled his brow. At that moment Birgitte shouted. “Mikael, my dearest. You can’t do this to me! I’m innocent, can’t you see that? I knew nothing about any of this.”

He cast a final glance at her, but his desire was dead and could not be brought back to life again. He now understood that it had never been more than desire. He needed her, just like a male animal needs a mate in spring, and he had mistook that for love.

He bowed quickly to the young count and left. The little puppy was in the hall, pressed up against the wall, gazing at him with big, baffled eyes.

“Take care, little friend,” he whispered with a lump in his throat and hurried on. By the door he hesitated and stopped. Then he turned on his heels, went inside again, and almost in defiance, he picked up the puppy.

“We need each other, you and I,” he whispered.

The puppy put its head on his shoulder, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Of course, he was not allowed to have a dog in the camp, but he didn’t give a damn. Now he wanted to do what suited him and for the moment, he had had his share of mankind.

Not surprisingly, he met the lady in black half way down the road to the gate. He felt angry as soon as he saw her. He had not forgiven her for that business in the cellar.

She smiled at him. “Now we must each go our separate ways, Mikael.”

“Yes, and hooray for that,” he said with bitterness. ”I don’t suppose you need me any more.”

“A feeble and fragile woman occasionally has to ask for help. And you’ve saved lives, haven’t you?”

Well, he couldn’t deny that, although he had very nearly taken a few as well.

She looked dreamily at him. “If only I knew who you are, wonderful Mikael. I’ve never met anybody like you.”

“There’s nothing special about me.”

“Yes, there is. Much more than you realise. But goodbye for now! Go back home, my young friend, as soon as you can.”

“Goodbye,” he answered curtly.

She touched his sleeve lightly, turned around and walked up towards the house.

A greyish dawn light was filling the sky. Mikael looked up - he thought he had heard wild geese in the distance. No, it was that peculiar moaning sound from the sky, which he had heard before. He didn’t know what it was, whether it was the wind in the treetops or an echo of something in the distance. It brought sadness with it and enveloped him with melancholy. The sound ended in long, dying chords. It was a strange phenomenon he had never heard about before. It belonged to this place, and only this place, that was near the fields of Peipus.

The puppy kicked and wanted to walk. Mikael put him down and glanced back at the house. He stared at the snow and a sense of horror surged through him.

The woman in black had walked up towards the house and into the courtyard. But in the snow, there was only one set of footprints. His own.

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