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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?