The Interlopers – Pre-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 out hunting, waiting for some wild animal to come out of the woods. But the game he was looking for was not from the forest. Ulrich von Gradwitz was searching for a man.

Gradwitz owned a large area of forest, and most it was full of excellent game. Although the line of steep hills upon which Ulrich stood was not good for hunting, it was the most closely guarded of all Gradwitz’s land. His grandfather had won it from the Znaeyms, a neighbouring family, in a famous court case. The Znaeyms had hunted the hills for many years but did not have ownership papers. They had never accepted the judgment of the court and continued to hunt in the forest. This had resulted in many arguments and fights between the families over three generations.

The battle 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 harm to, it was Georg Znaeym. The fighting might, perhaps, have died down or even been forgotten 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 some men together to keep watch in the forest. They were not out hunting four-footed game, but looking for two-legged game 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 scaring 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 hillside through the thick forest. He was looking and listening for signs of the enemy. If only on this wild night, in this dark, empty place, he might come across Georg Znaeym. And if it could be just the two of them, 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. Each had a gun in his hand. Each had hate in his heart and murder in his mind. The time had come when they could do what they had wanted their whole lives. But first they both had to stop and think, as it did not seem right to shoot down a neighbour without saying something to him. Before the moment of silence could give way to words, Nature changed things. There was the sound of something breaking over their heads, and the top part of a large tree fell down upon them.

Ulrich von Gradwitz found himself lying on the ground. One arm had no feeling in it, and was caught under him. The other was held almost as helplessly among the fallen branches. The trunk of the tree had fallen across his legs. He could not move them, but his heavy boots had saved his feet from being broken. It was clear that he could not get out from under the tree without help from someone. His face had been cut and there were drops of blood in his eyes. He moved his head quickly from side to side to clear this away so that he could look around.

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 was as helplessly caught under the fallen tree as Ulrich. There were broken branches on the ground all around them.

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 could not see well because of the blood which ran across his eyes, stopped trying to free himself for a moment to listen. He gave a short, wild laugh and spoke.

“So you’re not killed, as you should have been, but you’re caught, anyway,” he cried. “Caught fast! Ho, what a laugh! Ulrich von Gradwitz caught in the forest his grandfather took from my family. There’s real justice for you!”

Georg laughed again, 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 shooting game on a neighbour’s land.”

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 this tree, they could accidentally roll its 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 minutes must have gone by already. I will remember what you said when they get me out. Only, you will have met your death while shooting my game 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,” said Georg loudly, “good. We will fight this argument out to the death, you and I and our men, with no 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 were worried as they spoke, for each knew that it would be a long time before his men would come looking. They had no way of knowing which party would be the first to get there.

Both had now given up trying to free themselves from the wood that held them down. Ulrich tried hard to bring his one partially free arm near enough to his coat pocket to pull out his wine bottle. Even when he had managed this, it was a long time before he could get the top off and drink any of it. How wonderful 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 bottle if I threw it over to you?” asked Ulrich suddenly. “There is good wine in it, and one may as well enjoy it while 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 the smallest wind. Lying here tonight, thinking, I’ve come to see we’ve been very foolish. There are better things in life than winning an argument over where our land begins and ends. Neighbour, if you can forget the old argument, I… I will ask you to be my friend.”

Georg Znaeym was silent 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 our families if we ended our fighting 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 enjoy the New Year under my roof, and I would come and spend other holidays at your castle. I would never again fire a shot on your land unless you asked me to as a guest. And you could come and shoot water birds on my land. 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 some wine. Ulrich von Gradwitz, I will be your friend.”

For a time both men were silent. They were turning over in their minds the wonderful changes that bringing the fighting to an end would bring about. In the cold, dark forest the wind was tearing through the trees. They lay and waited for the men that would now bring freedom and help to both of them. Each silently prayed that his men might be the first to get there. They wanted to be the first to show that they truly cared for 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 these trees,” said Georg, “but we can try. Together, then.”

The two gave out 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 wind,” said Georg.

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

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

Both men shouted as loudly 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 men with me.”

“They are coming as fast as they can, brave boys,” said Ulrich happily.

“Are they your men?” asked Georg, but Ulrich did not answer.

“I said are they your men?” Georg asked again, this time more loudly.

“No,” said Ulrich with a laugh. It was the mad laugh of a man who was frightened out of his mind.

“Who are they?” asked Georg quickly, trying hard to see what the other wished he had not seen.