The Interlopers – Intermediate Level

In a forest somewhere on the eastern hills of the Carpathian Mountains, a man stood one winter night watching and listening. It looked as though he was waiting for some wild animal to come out of the woods within range of his rifle. But the game he was looking for was not from the forest. Ulrich von Gradwitz was searching for a human enemy.

The forests of Gradwitz were large and mostly full of excellent game. Although the narrow line of steep hills upon which Ulrich stood was not good for hunting, it was the most closely guarded of all its owner’s land. In a famous court case, his grandfather had won the land from the illegal possession of the Znaeyms, a neighbouring family. The Znaeyms had never accepted the judgment of the court and continued to hunt in the forest. This had resulted in a long series of arguments and fights. Bad relationships had now existed between the families for three generations.

The feud had grown into a personal one since Ulrich had come to be head of his family. If there was a man in the world whom he hated and wished ill to, it was Georg Znaeym. He was head of the neighbouring family and a tireless game thief. The feud might, perhaps, have died down or even been healed if the personal hatred of the two men had not stood in the way. As boys, they had thirsted for one another’s blood. As men, each prayed that bad luck might fall upon the other.

This windy winter night Ulrich had got his foresters together to keep watch in the forest. They were not out hunting four-footed game, but looking for two-legged thieves. Deer, which usually hide in a quiet place out of the wind during a storm such as this, were running about the forest like driven things. There was also movement among other animals that usually sleep through the dark hours. There was something upsetting the creatures of the forest tonight, and Ulrich could guess what it was.

He had placed his men in hiding at the top of a hill. Then he had walked far down the steep slopes through the thick undergrowth, looking and listening for sight or sound of the enemy. If only on this wild night, in this dark, lonely spot, he might come across Georg Znaeym, man to man, with no one watching! He would like that more than anything else in the world. As he stepped around the trunk of a huge tree, he came face to face with the man he was looking for.

The two enemies stood looking at one another for a long silent moment. Each had a rifle in his hand. Each had hate in his heart and murder in his mind. The chance had come do what they had wanted their whole lives. But an honourable man cannot easily bring himself to shoot down a neighbour without saying a word. Before the moment of silence could give way to action, Nature violently stopped them both. There was a splitting crash over their heads. Before either of them could move out of the way, a mass of falling tree had thundered down on them.

Ulrich von Gradwitz found himself lying on the ground. One arm had no feeling in it, and was under him. The other was held almost as helplessly in a tight tangle of branches. Both legs were pinned under the trunk of the tree, but his heavy boots had saved his feet from being broken. It was clear that he could not move from his present position till someone came to set him free. The falling twigs had cut the skin of his face. He had to shake away some drops of blood from his eyes before he could take in a general view of what had happened.

Georg Znaeym lay at his Ulrich’s side, so near that if he could move his arms he could almost have touched him. Georg was alive and trying to free himself, but obviously as helplessly caught under the fallen tree as Ulrich. All around them lay a thick pile of broken branches and twigs.

Ulrich was happy to be alive, but angry at not being able to move. After giving thanks to God, he began cursing loudly. Georg, who was nearly blinded with the blood which trickled across his eyes, stopped his struggling for a moment to listen. He gave a short, snarling laugh and spoke.

“So you’re not killed, as you ought to be, but you’re caught, anyway,” he cried. “Caught fast! Ho, what a joke, Ulrich von Gradwitz caught in his stolen forest. There’s real justice for you!”

Georg laughed savagely, as if he thought it was very funny.

“Caught in my own forest, am I?” answered Ulrich. “When my men come to free us you will wish, perhaps, that you were not caught stealing game on a neighbour’s land. Shame on you!”

Georg was silent for a moment. Then he answered quietly.

“Are you sure that your men will find much to free? I also have my men in the forest tonight. They are close behind me, and will be here first. When they pull me out from under these damned branches, they could accidentally roll this trunk right over on the top of you. Your men will find you dead under a fallen tree. I shall send a note to your family, of course, saying how sorry I feel for them.”

“It is a useful idea,” said Ulrich angrily. “My men had orders to follow in ten minutes’ time, seven of which must have gone by already. I will remember what you said when they get me out. Only, you will have met your death while illegally shooting on my land. So I don’t think it would be right for me to send a message saying how sad I feel about it to your family.”

“Good,” snarled Georg, “good. We will fight this argument out to the death, you and I and our foresters, with no damn interlopers to come between us. It will be death and the fire of Hell for you, Ulrich von Gradwitz.”

“The same for you, Georg Znaeym, forest thief, game robber.”

Both men spoke with the bitterness of possible defeat facing them. For each knew that it would be a long time before his men would come looking. It was a matter of chance which party would arrive first on the scene.

Both had now given up the useless struggle to free themselves from the mass of wood that held them down. Ulrich limited his efforts to bringing his one partially free arm near enough to his coat pocket to draw out his wine flask. Even when he had managed this, it was a long time before he could get the top off and pour some of the liquid down his throat. What a Heavenly drink it seemed! The wine was warming and made him feel better. He looked across to where his enemy lay, fighting hard to stop crying out in pain.

“Could you reach this flask if I threw it over to you?” asked Ulrich suddenly. “There is good wine in it, and one may as well be as comfortable as one can. Let us drink, even if tonight one of us dies.”

“No, there is so much blood around my eyes that it is hard for me to see anything,” said Georg. “And in any case I don’t drink with an enemy.”

Ulrich was silent for a few minutes, and lay listening to the sound of the wind. An idea was slowly forming and growing in his brain. The idea got stronger every time he looked across at Georg, who was fighting hard against pain and tiredness. As Ulrich thought about his own pain and tiredness, his wild hatred for Georg seemed to be getting smaller and smaller .

“Neighbour,” he finally said, “do as you please if your men come first. It was a fair agreement we just made. But as for me, I’ve changed my mind. If my men are the first to come you shall be the first to be helped, as though you were my guest here. We have been enemies all our lives over this stupid piece of forest where the trees can’t even stand straight in a breath of wind. Lying here tonight, thinking, I’ve come to see we’ve been rather foolish. There are better things in life than winning an argument over where our land begins and ends. Neighbour, if you will help me to bury the old argument, I… I will ask you to be my friend.”

Georg Znaeym was silent for a long time. Ulrich thought, perhaps, he had fainted with the pain of his injuries. Then he spoke slowly, as if choosing his words very carefully.

“How the whole region would be surprised if we rode into the market square together. No one living can remember seeing a Znaeym and a von Gradwitz talking to one another in friendship. What peace there would be among the families if we ended our feud tonight. And if we choose to make peace among our people there is no one to stop us, no interlopers from outside. You would come and celebrate the New Year under my roof, and I would come and celebrate other holidays at your castle. I would never again fire a shot on your land unless you invited me as a guest. And you would come and shoot with me down in my marshes where the water birds are. I have been happy to hate you all my life, but I think I have changed my mind about things too, this last half-hour. And you offered me your wine flask. Ulrich von Gradwitz, I will be your friend.”

For a space both men were silent. They were turning over in their minds the wonderful changes that bringing the feud to an end would bring about. In the cold, dark forest the wind was tearing through the branches and whistling around the naked tree trunks. They lay and waited for the help that would now bring freedom and assistance to both of them. Each prayed a private prayer that his men might be the first to arrive. They wanted to be the first to show honourable attention to the enemy that had become a friend.

When the wind dropped for a moment, Ulrich spoke.

“Let’s shout for help,” he said. “In this break in the wind our voices may carry a little way.”

“They won’t carry far through the trees and undergrowth,” said Georg, “but we can try. Together, then.”

The two raised their voices in a long, loud hunting call.

“Together again,” said Ulrich a few minutes later, after listening without success for an answering call.

“I heard something that time, I think,” said Ulrich.

“I heard nothing but the terrible wind,” said Georg.

There was silence again for some minutes, and then Ulrich gave a joyful cry.

“I can see figures coming through the wood. They are following the way I came down the hillside.”

Both men raised their voices in as loud a shout as they could manage.

“They hear us! They’ve stopped. Now they see us. They’re running down the hill towards us,” cried Ulrich.

“How many of them are there?” asked Georg.

“I can’t see clearly,” said Ulrich; “nine or ten.”

“Then they are yours,” said Georg. “I had only seven out with me.”

“They are making all the speed they can, brave lads,” said Ulrich gladly.

“Are they your men?” asked Georg. “Are they your men?” he repeated impatiently as Ulrich did not answer.

“No,” said Ulrich with a laugh. It was the mad laugh of a man who had lost his mind because of hideous fear.

“Who are they?” asked Georg quickly, trying hard to see what the other would gladly not have seen.