Monday, November 5, 2007

A Christmas Carol, Chapters 1 - 8

Prologue in a high place

In the darkening dusk Ratatosk scowled challenging across his bushy tail.
“You can admit it now. You’re lost.”
“Nonsense. I know exactly were we are.”
“Yeah? Where are we, then?” Bran sighed and ruffled his feathers.
The wren looked around. His small band sat in the branches of a tall oak-tree amidst a sea of snow-covered roofs. Immediately to their left, a chasm cut through the expanse of sleet and shingles, of smoke-stacks and aerials. Deep below in the darkness of the impending night headlights chased one another in a continuous stream of red and white light. Far behind their backs this rush seemed to merge with a much larger river of flowing radiance and steaming exhaust leading off to the South, while in front of them the low-hanging winter sky was aglow with the sickly yellow luminosity of a bloated city and in sharp relief thousands of peaks, gables and the flattops of apartment towers were sprawled across the horizon.
Trying to convey a cheerfulness and optimism he did not feel, the wren finally answered:
“We’re in Berlin.”

Chapter 1

Richard Kaussner was not what you might call prime hero material, although he liked to think of himself as of having hidden depths. When his story got on the way destiny seemed to have had some grand design in mind. First of all, like many great heroes, Richard was an orphan. His father was unknown. As his aunt had always been fond to tell Richard, his mother – when queried about Richard’s father – had just said he was a child of love, and left it at that. “Isn’t that romantic?” his aunt had usually concluded the tale, smiled blissfully, and petted his cheek. Richard’s mother had died before her son’s first birthday and he had no memories of her at all. He had grown up amongst six older cousins in the house of one of his many aunts.

Also, and Richard had secretly always liked that best, he was the last of his kind, the last Schwarzkolmburger. For two days after his birth his home village of Schwarzkolmburg, together with three other small villages, had been officially annexed to the nearby town of Prussel (although Prussel had only marginally more inhabitants than each of the vanishing villages.) And that meant, administratively speaking, that never again would there be another Schwarzkolmburger; he was the last.

Lastly, the area Richard had grown up in had by his fellow countrymen commonly been known as the valley of the ignorant. The title had to do with politics and the reception of West-German TV programs and Richard mostly chose not to mention it if it could be avoided. But in hours of quiet desperation, when he pondered his promising begins, hero-wise, and to cheer himself up, he argued that the valley of the ignorant really was a lot like that valley Parceval, most glorious of all heroes, had grown up in.

But look at it whichever way he wanted, Richard had to admit that after this initial effort destiny must have had a change of mind, or maybe it had just grown preoccupied with some other project and had forgotten all about him. The rest of his childhood had been completely without indication that the future still might have a career as a hero in store for him. While his aunts all had a soft spot for him, he had never been very popular with his peers, for all the obvious reasons. He had been a bookish child, shy and a bit naive; neither athletic nor intelligent enough to impress either the boys or the girls. He had always felt as if everybody else shared some deep and profound and somewhat terrifying secret nobody had bothered to tell him, and which he had always been afraid to ask about.

Thus bereft of destiny’s guiding hand, and not without regrets, Richard had in the end grown up to be a violinist. For some time, he had been hopeful again, as if, having failed as a hero himself, he might at least be part of the beauty of the world and thus provide the colourful background for another hero’s stage. But at 23 it became apparent that he was not a particular brilliant violinist, and he began to suspect that he would never be in the spotlight of any grand and internationally famous orchestra, and that at best he would always only be in the background of the background, so to speak.

Chapter 2

In the end, Bran had pulled rank, and decided that the three elves would spend the night in the tree of a cemetery they had stumbled across. Still trying to keep up the spirits, the wren had called it a graveyard, but now, in the bleak morning’s light, even with wisps of fog drifting amidst the frost covered headstones, he was forced to admit that this sanitary, orderly, well-groomed piece of communal real estate was nothing of the sort. Here urns were interred just long enough to allow the living to forget the dead, to be removed again soon and make more lucrative space for some other freshly deceased and incinerated sod. There would never be any ghosts to haunt this place, never any spirits to moan, lost in melancholic memories. The elves were depressed.

Yesterday morning, upon leaving the fair lands, the wren, with his aristocratic heritage, had seized leadership and neither Bran nor Ratatosk had challenged him. The wren had always been a little bit ashamed of his family’s suburban homestead, and had been glad that for once familiarity with mortal lands would be an asset. And things had begun so well: Asking around among his far flung kith and kin he had soon learned of the correct portal, the transition had been without incident, even the obligatory guardian at the threshold had been a piece of cake, really, with his dusty old riddle. Although they probably were not being fair, after all, where was the riddler whose skill could match that of Bran’s prophesising? But from there things had taken a turn for the worse. The wren had never actually been to a real city – unthinkingly he had assumed that all human townships were alike and that his sound area-knowledge of Falmouth, Cornwall, where he had hatched and fledged, would be sufficient to guide them through Berlin and let them find who they were looking for. He had been wrong.

Now leadership had fallen to Bran, who was their eldest anyway, more of a God than an elf, actually, even if a mostly disremembered God. Bran was clothed in the charcoal plumage of the Raven-folk, as it was customary with him when leaving the fair lands, and his voice was rough and grating. Especially when he was lecturing, and even Ratatosk somewhat regretted that the wren had proven such an ill-suited expedition leader. Right now, Bran was reciting the elfish rules of conduct when on a mission in the outside world: No use of glamour or magics, not to speak to ordinary mortals, who would not understand them anyway, and never to consume any mortal food or drink, as both would rob them of their reason and turn them into the dumb beasts whose bodies they wore.

“Sure. Fine. Whatever,” Ratatosk said, who was getting cold, and who never could abide sermons anyway. “How in Wotan’s name are we gonna find this chick now?”

“The princess,” Bran corrected him.

“Yeah, yeah, this princess chick. How are we gonna find her?” The squirrel Ratatosk really regretted that Bran had taken over. But he was a God, after all, and Ratatosk himself certainly would be no great help at the helm, as he would be the first to admit. He was a great three-penny orator, as long as there was something to gossip about, and he was a lightning quick messenger, running up and down the world’s tree all day and spreading discord amongst the inhabitants. He liked to mix things up, get them moving, anything to keep the world from falling asleep on its feet. But cool planning, systematic trailblazing and accomplishing a mission to their principal’s satisfaction was not his forte. So it would have to be Bran. Ratatosk consigned himself to patience. If the old Raven would at least occasionally give them a straight answer, a forthright direction.

Bran cawed and said:
“To come to the much needed aid
of the imprisoned maid
The herald’s triad must make haste
there is no time to waste.
By catgut and cat’s cradle
by wicker shield and chocolate-kringel
good plans at full moon’s light be laid
or else help be too late.”

“Great,” Ratatosk remarked, “great deal of good that’s gonna do us.”

“It’s a prophecy,” Bran said. “It has to be oblique to be a good prophecy. That is one of the two obligatory attributes. But be at rest: Truth is the other. You just have to interpret it.”

“It ain’t even good poetry: laid and late, not to mention cradle and kringel...” Ratatosk muttered.

“The first part is easy, innit? Means we’ve got to hurry.” The wren chipped in. He observed a lonely visitor to the cemetery walking along the neatly criss-crossing paths with a wreath of pale flowers cradled in the crook of the arm.

“Well, I bloody would like to, but hurry where to?” Ratatosk asked, his bushy tail flickering back and forth irritably. “When’s full moon anyway?”

“The night after next.” Bran said gravely. “Epiphany.”

“Right, loads of time to hang around in cemetery trees and be frozen stiff by then.” Ratatosk grumbled. “I only hope the part about chocolate-kringles comes true soon.”

“We must not eat any food here,” Bran reminded him.

“I really don’t get all this stuff about cat’s guts and cradles. What is that supposed to mean?” the wren interrupted.

“Cat’s cradle is a children’s game, isn’t it?” Ratatosk asked, digging through his memories of mortal affairs.

“Children often are the last keepers of ancient wisdom, and in their play the true rites and rituals of old can be found.” Bran said.

“I think I know a cat in Berlin.” Ratatosk mused. “I guess that is no help, is it?”

“I don’t think so,” the wren said, who – as any small bird – did not particularly fancy cats. “Unless you wanted to gut her,” he added sniggering.

“Who is this cat?” Bran asked.

“Um, name’s Kato. I know him from way back when, during the crusades. Bit of a fanatic, Christian knight and all. Decent chap, though, once you get to the truce stage with him.” Ratatosk said. “Must be in his later lives, now, I guess, if he’s still around.”

“What good is he to us anyway,” the wren asked, still dismayed at the thought of having to deal with a cat. “I mean, do you know where to find him?”

Ratatosk smiled. The sun had finally found a smudged hole in the overcast sky to glimpse through, and her wan and frosty glance set the whitened trees alight in a wintry golden glow. “Hey, I’m a messenger,” the squirrel said. “I might not be much of a pathfinder, but I’ll get a message to its address any day.”

“We’ll start our quest with him, then. Maybe he can point us the way,” Bran decreed.

“This is gonna end in trouble,” the wren said to his companions. “Mark my words!”

For now Ratatosk was happy to be finally moving again and he dismissed the wren’s remark as mere timidity, but Bran, expert in truth-saying of all kinds, recognised it for what it was: Another prophecy, and as such, inescapable.

Chapter 3

Richard had met the princess for the first time on a student party in early November. Of course he hadn’t known her to be a princess then, but truth be told, that had not been apparent at first sight. To make things worse, though, he never could remember their first meeting later, try as he might. Fact was the whole affair had gone down rather ignoble.

The first thing about her he would remember was waking up from a dream so sweet and soft he clung to it like a drowning man to the last floating board of his sundered ship. He bunched his pillow and pressed his face deeper into it, as if he could thus squeeze his way back into the fading dream. He breathed in deeply and that was when he smelled her – his world suddenly became saturated by her smell. Mostly it was French tobacco and plain soap, somehow dry and cool, faintly sour with sweat and a bit dusty like wool, and there was something like tar in it, or petroleum, and a hint of exotic spices, or maybe of seasoned tea.

Somewhere in the distance he heard the froth and clatter of someone taking a shower.

Richard rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. He groped for his glasses and found them on the clammy floor to his right. The room that swum into focus now was small and cold enough for him to see his breath and it was utterly unknown to him.

Grey morning light filtered in through pale orange curtains, and behind them he could glimpse first frost’s ice flowering on the narrow window panes. The room was furnished with a small table, a kitchen bench and two folding chairs, a fridge, a cupboard and a small electric stove with a cheap aluminium kettle on it, a dusty bookcase and the queen-sized bed he was lying on, which could be folded upright to disappear into a wardrobe. Clothes – some of them his own – were strewn across the linoleum floor. Somebody had painted a midnight blue sky and lots of pointy yellow stars on the ceiling.

Richard yawned; then he moaned and held his hurting head.

Sitting up and looking around not only really woke up Richard but also a killer headache that allowed only one conclusion: Whatever had happened had involved way too much alcohol. From the fuzzy aftertaste on his dry tongue it probably had been mostly cheap red wine and possibly even cheaper vodka.

“Where the hell am I?” he wondered.

The hissing sound of running water came from a door at the back of the room. Thin lines of steam were seeping from the cracks.

Clumsily Richard put his feet out of the bed and almost recoiled from the cold, but the thought of being seen by somebody he didn’t know naked, goose-pimpled, and sporting an embarrassing morning erection helped overcoming his reluctance.

Aching and still bleary Richard moved about and gathered the clothes. He dressed in his and put the others orderly onto the bed. Even given his witless state they were painfully easy to tell apart: His clothes were all dark blue, plain and sensible, from the Mephisto shoes to the woollen jumper; sensible, proper and dull. Not much chance to get them mixed up with the paint-stained cargo jeans with the turned up hems or the ringed longstockings, the house-big, hand-knit woollen pullover or black Doc Marten’s boots, the slinky tank top or the… the bottle-green… gaiters? Spats?

Richard was puzzling over the purpose of these baggy and rather dirty woollen tubular cloths, when a shrill whistling made him jump. The infernal noise drove white-hot spikes into his hung-over brain. Looking about Richard could identify the steaming camping kettle as the source of this racket. He hurried over to the narrow stove, and without thinking, he used the... spats or… whatever… as oven cloths to take the kettle from the hotplate.

He was just looking around for a place to put the kettle down, when the door to the bathroom opened. The kettle’s whistling fell several octaves and diminish into a mute hiss and the quiet burbling of boiling water. In the open door Richard saw the girl. Woman. Girl. Richard had not the least idea who she might be. Only that – to him – she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.

The girl smiled. He guessed her to be about his age, maybe a year older, or two. Thick strawberry blond hair fell in wet strands around her round pink face to her shoulders. The face was freckled evenly and densely from ear to ear, from hairline to chin, and even down her neck and throat. Single wisps of steam still rose from her plump body. The skin was pink and ruddy from the towelling after a hot shower, and her pubic hair was of a much darker red than the hair on her head. Richard could tell because but for a soggy towel-rag approximately the size of a large stamp, which she held loosely across her chest and which did not quite reach to her legs, she was completely naked.

For a moment Richard was stuck dumb. He could feel his face go utterly blank as he stared at her. Then he blushed deeply. He could see in her eyes that in the moment of him staring at her, even though it had been half from being stunned by her beauty, she realised he didn’t remember her. Not only her name, or whether they had last night actually had sex rather than immediately falling into drunken stupor, but that he did not remember having seen her ever before.

Her smile dropped from her face and she began to dress.

For a while Richard just stood there, kettle still in hand, and felt guilty. He thought about apologising, but found no words. Besides, what if she hadn’t really caught on to him and was sulking because of something he had done during the night? He would just add insult to injury with a needless confession. Or maybe she wasn’t sulking at all and just overhung like him. He wasn’t even certain that they had really had sex together. He faintly remembered having read somewhere, that too much alcohol depressed the libido.

Eventually the kettle in his hands became too heavy and he put it down – back on the stove. Moments later, the kettle began its terrible racket again. When he fetched it off the hotplate, the girl was suddenly besides him. She got two mugs and a jar of instant coffee from the cupboard and took the kettle off his hands to pour the boiling water into the mugs. Then she took the spats from his hands.

While she finished lacing up her boots and pulled the green woollen spats over her ankles, Richard was still at a loss what to say. He drank some coffee, which was black and bitter and not at all the way he liked it, and looked about.

He suddenly realised that the strange little room with the wooden walls and the camping furniture was a garden bower. Outside of the iced-over windows everything was shrouded in heavy mist, and those few dark shapes that were visible, probably large bushes, Rhododendrons perhaps, seemed menacing, like lumpy trolls lumbering about.

The girl sat up and dug a pack of French cigarettes and a storm lighter from her bulky clothes. She silently offered one to Richard who declined, shrugged and lit one herself. Just then, the sun rose over some distant trees and the mist outside became saturated with a golden glow. And as the golden light flooded the bower, he could see her eyes change from blue-grey to glacier green. Again it took his breath away and he could hardly believe that there could be so much beauty in the world.

She became aware of being stared at and looked at him. She smiled reluctantly and self-consciously brushed her hair out of her face. Richard could see that she had hardly any earlobes, they just merged in one smooth tapering arc with the very end of her muscular jaw.

A shadow fell across her. She looked towards the window and froze. Richard followed her eyes and actually squeaked. One of the trolls had crept out of the mist and was pressing his ugly, misshapen face against the window.

“No, no,” Richard thought inanely. “That’s wrong. Trolls turn into stone in sunlight, not the other way around.”

But the girl had grabbed Richard by the hand, and without bothering with their coats or anything else, she dragged him through the narrow bathroom at the end of the room to a backdoor and out into the frosty garden.

Through bushes and under trees they ran, jumped across a narrow stone wall and continued through a small park-like wood. A narrow alley between two vast gardens followed, and still Richard was certain he could feel the monster breathing down his neck as it gave chase. But when they emerged on a small winding road, lined with chestnut trees, and walked over to a bus stop, they were alone. The troll had not followed.

When Richard had caught his breath he looked at the girl and saw that she was badly frightened. She kept glancing over her shoulder and at her wristwatch. She shivered – Richard did not know if it was because of fear or the cold. Probably both. He thought about hugging her, but before he could muster the courage the bus arrived.

Like a whale out of the depth it emerged from the thinning mist. They boarded and Richard wanted to know of her who the monster had been, but she just shrugged and looked out the window. Richard was at a loss. Then he noticed that he had left not only his coat behind but also his wallet. And when he groaned and complained about it and the girl didn’t even take notice but continued to stare out of the window in silence, Richard sulked. He was a polite and well-mannered young man, but enough was enough. Because of this... this floozy, he would have to go through the trouble of having all his cards replaced, from his bank card to the video-rental card, his drivers license, his bloody student ID; he would have to buy a new month-pass for the subway, and the multiple ticket for the Philharmonic his aunt had given him for his birthday was also gone. And she didn’t even say sorry. How could she get him into such a situation anyway? Why did she have to drag him to that garden shed at all, didn’t she have an apartment? Who was she anyway?

Richard leaned back, determined, not to say a word before she didn’t apologise; and promptly fell asleep. He came around when she nudged him gently. The bus was overcrowded by then. The windows where all fogged up. She smiled at him, and before he could remember that he was sulking, Richard found himself smiling back at her.

She pointed out the window. She had doodled on the fogged over glass, a poem or something, the way little kids do it, when they play tick-tack-toe or, giggling, write down dirty words. Through the scribbling Richard could see a kindergarten and children playing in the sun. He also realised that the bus was almost at Rathaus Steglitz, his stop. From here he could catch a subway that brought him to his apartment in Reinickendorf.

“My stop,” Richard said.

The girl nodded and got up. Richard stepped out into the crowded aisle.

“Are you getting off here, too?” he asked, but she was busy wiping her scribbling from the window and didn’t answer.

Suit yourself, Richard thought. The bus came to a jarring stop. The doors opened and the crowed began to spill out. Richard was almost at the door when he noticed that the girl had again sat down and was not coming along. He tried to fight his way back up the aisle, but the surge was too strong, he was simply pushed out onto the sidewalk.

“Wait. How can I reach you?” Richard shouted. “What’s your name?”

The doors closed, the bus swerved and joined the flowing traffic. As it drove off Richard could see the girl sit at her window looking out. She was leaning her forehead against the cold glass and her eyes stared sadly into empty space. Just then the bus moved through a beam of sunlight shining through a gap between two houses. The sun backlit her face, turning her hair into a lambent flame, and painted a glowing halo around her face.

Then she was gone.

Chapter 4

Round about that time, things had got moving in Fairyland as well. While in the mortal world rain and sleet made pre-Christmas shopping even less pleasant than it would have been without, the eternal summer twilight of the fair lands never changed.

Hoagputzer Glummdrengle, a garden gnome of impeccable reputation, was sitting in his rocking chair on his porch, smoking and reading the Horticultural Times. He was just about to get himself in a good huff about the mistletoe situation – Ragnarok or not, you couldn’t simply go and ban something like that. Mistletoe was a traditional, what about the Yule feast and all? Regulations for the protection against improper use of plants and animals in celestial battles my aunt fanny, he thought, when he heard something flutter behind him.

Hoagputzer Glummdrengle turned around. A hooded crow had lit on his wheelbarrow (Hoagputzer was a wheelbarrow kind of gnome,) cocked his head and cawed when the old gnome looked at it. The crow took wing again and glided over to the rocking chair. As it was about to land on the ground, there was a rustling of feathers and a fluttering of shadows and in its stead there stood a tall man, hooded like the crow had been, with slim, pale hands and eyes that gleamed silvery in the darkness under the cowl.

“Good evening, my dear Glummdrengle” the man said. His voice was melodious, not at all the grating rasp expected from one who came disguised as a crow.

Hoagputzer slowly took the pipe from his mouth and got to his feet. He hinted at a bow and said warily: “Good evening, my lord Ratkiller. What brings me the honour of your call?”

As if he didn’t know. This was not the first time he received such a visit. Although he had hoped the last one would have been, well... the last. There had been angry words the last time. He had refused to ever do this again.

The visitor looked intensely at the gnome. His eyes shone like the moon.

“Something has come up, Glummdrengle, and I need your help. You will put together a team. Messengers, not heroes. Three should do. They are not needed yet, but I may have to deploy them at short notice.”

Hoagputzer hesitated. He was about to say something, when the cowled figure asked gently: “Yes, Glummdrengle?” You could hear the soft smile in the voice and a menace behind it. “You were about to say?”

Hoagputzer didn’t want to do this. The last time he had sent some kids on a mission for the hooded crow, there had been deaths. The wrong kind of deaths, if there was any other kind, deaths amongst the good guys, amongst the kids he had sent. But a long time ago, Hoagputzer’s grandfather had put himself deeply in the Ratkiller’s debt. Oh, no doubt, most young garden gnomes nowadays, Moonies and Manniken-Piss all of them, with no dignity or family honour, wouldn’t care one wilted leaf of lettuce about a thing like that, but he was a Glummdrengle. The wheelbarrow he owned went back thirteen generations. He couldn’t turn his back on that.

Beaten, Hoagputzer said: “Of course, my lord. The mission, what will it be?”

“You don’t need to know. In fact, nobody needs to know: neither of the mission nor that it has anything to do with me. Just find me three adequate messengers.”

“But lord, how shall I choose them, when I don’t know what they will have to be capable of?”

“Stealthy, inconspicuous both here and in the other world, intelligent, independent and dutiful will do the job, Glummdrengle. You’re well connected, you know people, people know you. I know I can count on you.”

Hoagputzer sighed and nodded.

The man with the silver eyes turned around and changing back into a crow he took flight. The blackbird circled Hoagputzer once and for a last time lit on the roof of the gnome’s dwelling. It fixated the garden gnome with its beady little eyes. For a moment they reflected the ever darkening sky and flashed silvery.

“Glummdrengle,” it croaked. “It’s for a good cause.”

With that it spread its wings and disappeared into the evening gloom.

Hoagputzer Glummdrengle stood besides his rocking chair for a long time and stared into that perfect deepening dusk that would never quite turn to night. He did not want to do this. Last time there had been deaths. Then, too, it had been for a good cause. But he couldn’t help himself, he was already going through a list of possible candidates.

Chapter 5

Richard had only come to Berlin for the winter. He had planned to earn some money playing on private parties and on receptions, and to look for an orchestra that might take him on more permanently. The first weeks had been very frustrating, which had been why he had gone to that fateful student party at the Academy of Arts, where a few distant acquaintances of his still studied.

In the wake of that first meeting with the princess there were certain repercussions in Richard’s life. For one, he couldn’t forget her. Images of her, as she came out of the shower, as she sat on the bed, getting dressed; her eyes changing in the sunlight... he couldn’t believe that something this beautiful had come into his life and had gone .

Once he was safely home and had gotten through having those cards barred that he had lost together with his wallet, his anger at the princess was evaporating. He began to worry about her. What did he know about her sorrows, maybe a lost wallet was nothing by comparison. Maybe she hadn’t even heard him, when he complained about it.

Worrying was something Richard was good at, and he could get amazingly creative once at it. He thought up all manner of terrible problems for the princess, from being an orphan and homeless, to being an illegal immigrant and on the run from dodgy mobsters. He also imagined all manner of gruesome details; she was probably terminally ill (he had vaguely romantic ideas about tuberculosis) or had a poor and ailing elderly father she was trying to support. In the end Richard was racked with guilt about having let her go alone.

He asked those of his acquaintances who had also been to the student party if they remembered the girl he’d left with (and it certainly felt good for once being the one who left with the girl), but although they recalled him getting disgracefully drunk, none could tell him anything about this girl.

So Richard took to visiting the Academy of Arts in the afternoon, when the employment agency for musicians was closed, and prowled its stately hallways in the vague hopes of finding her there. The academy was, after all, the only lead he had.

He walked the corridors and ever so often thought he’d seen her, but whenever he came closer, it turned to be another girl in a similar pullover, or with similar hair. The princess he did not find.

There had been one more contact with the princess’ life, but it hadn’t helped either. One week after that memorable (although ill-remembered) night, he had been paid a similarly extraordinary if immensely less enjoyable visit:

In the morning – it was a grey and dismal day – he had been to the musicians’ employment agency and later he’d had lunch at the academy’s cafeteria, once more hoping to run across the princess. Both efforts had been in vain, and so he went home in a rather foul mood.

He found the lock at the door of his apartment forced open and two men waiting in his single room. They were tall, unshaven and wore terminally cool leather jackets and sunglasses. Before Richard could threaten them with the police they had grabbed him by the upper arms and were marching him down the stairs.

“Who are you? What do you want? You can’t do this.” Richard stammered, even though quite obviously they could.

One of them, he was the stockier of the two and had a hairy wart next to his nose, showed Richard a frightfully big handgun before hiding it under his jacket again, and the other one, who had a tattoo of a snake around the wrist of the hand that was painfully holding Richard by the elbow, smiled gently and said: “You can come quietly and in one piece or a screaming bloody bundle with a fucking big hole where the knee used to be. Me personally I prefer it quiet, but me colleague here is really keen on using his new shooter. So you mustn’t worry: either way, you’ll do one of us a favour.”

They put him in the back of a big old Benz and drove him to a construction site in the Westhafen area. They drove past a gate of wire netting and across a muddy plain to a row of dirty white containers housing the offices of the architects. Everywhere large signs were proclaiming this waste land to be a site of the Saumpfad Building Construction and Civil Engineering Company. The slogan underneath the logo proclaimed: “We get it done!”

During the journey, Snake and the Wart had entertained themselves with swapping graphic tales of how various thug colleagues of theirs had been wasted in various fictitious sounding mob wars. The villains of these pieces invariably were “the spaghettis”, “the Croats”, “the slit-eyes”, “Ivan” and other colourfully dubbed ethnic groups. When the car came to a stop in front of the row of container offices, Snake had won their most-bloodcurdling-murder contest by points and the Wart was sulking because he couldn’t come up with anything even remotely credible that would top the last atrocity. Richard felt nauseous and very, very frightened.

Instead of right away bringing him to a freshly poured cement foundation and make him disappear, they directed him to the last container in the row and told him to get in there.

“The boss wants to talk to you,” the Wart told him.

“Bye-bye,” Snake sing-sang and waved him cheerfully.

When Richard hesitated the Wart grunted and opened the buttons of his jacket. Not waiting for another view of the big gun, Richard turned around and walked into the container.

Inside was a plush sitting room. The air was thick with cigar smoke. Through the haze Richard saw that the room was dominated by a large model of the new shopping centre that was being built here. At the window a bulky man in a garish suit and carrot red hair was peering through the blinds.

For a while the man did not acknowledge Richard’s presence. He went on puffing on his cigar and staring out at the mud field scarred by caterpillar tracks and at the distant mountains of sand and gravel that were his kingdom. Eventually he turned around. He was moving so slow and seemingly lost in thought that Richard began to think that maybe the man really didn’t know that someone had entered. But the narrow eyes that now strafed Richard were keen and very much aware of what was going on around them.

“This is yours, I reckon,” the man rumbled and chucked Richard’s wallet through the air. Richard tried to catch it but missed. It fell to the floor and he had to bend down to pick it up. Feeling the keen eyes of the construction king pierce his back as he bent down made Richard’s hair stand on end.

Richard got back up and nodded. He didn’t know what to say.

“Not much of talker, are you?” the man rumbled again. “Good, I like that in a man.”

He strolled closer and looked Richard in the eyes.

“Now, I want you tell me where I can find my daughter.”

Richard said: “I... I don’t know.” And hastened to add: “Sir.”

The man grabbed Richard by the neck and snarled: “Don’t lie to me, boy, or I’ll make you stop lying for good. If you get my meaning.”

“I... I get your meaning... Sir. B-but I really don’t know where your daughter is. Or who, for that matter. Honestly!”

The man squeezed Richard’s shoulder harder and said: “You want to tell me why I found your wallet under the bed at the bower then, son. Because if you haven’t been there, for the life of me, I can’t see how it got there.”

“Oh, you mean Her…,” Richard squeaked. “Um, yes, I’ve been there. But it was only that one night and I still don’t know her name. We ran from the troll and before I had a chance to ask, she was gone with the bus. I met her on a party; I don’t know where she is. Please... it hurts...”

The man relaxed his grip on Richard’s shoulder a little bit but did not let go.

“You mean to tell me that you picked her up on some party, went with her to my bower and without even knowing her name you shagged her. And you left without knowing her address or phone number or anything? Is that the story you’re trying to sell here, son?”

Richard began to see that maybe the truth about his brief affair with the princess might not necessarily improve his standing with her father. But he was much too frightened to come up with a believable lie.

Not knowing what to say, he settled for: “Uh, er... well...”

But when the man’s hand began squeezing again, Richard blurted out: “Yes. Look, I don’t know. I don’t remember. Ouch! Look, I was pretty drunk at that party. Maybe she did tell me her name, maybe she told me the whole bloody story of her life, but I really don’t remember anything. I only remember waking up and being chased away by a troll. I swear I don’t know!”

The man let go of him and scratched the stubble on his chin.

“You think she may have told you, hm?” He looked at Richard as if to figure him out. “You think she might have told you the story of her life.”

He looked towards the window again.

“Yeah, well, maybe you really don’t know her.”

Richard nodded sorrowfully.

“Well, that’d be all then, son. Take a card from the table next to the door and give us a call should you meet her again. I really need to talk to Sovereignty. You see...”

The man coughed, stubbed out the cigar stub in an ashtray the size of a dinner plate and began laboriously lighting a fresh one, which he’d taken from the pocket of his jacket.

Richard asked: “Her name’s Suh-vern-tee?”

“Hm? Yes, yes. Sovereignty. Her mother’s idea. But then she was from England, wasn’t she. All a bit wacky. I wanted to call her Dorothea Luise, after my Grandmothers. But she didn’t like my family. Not that she ever said so, but I could tell. Anyway…”

He coughed again and walked back to his place by the window.

“Her mother. It’s about her mother. That’s why I have to talk to her.” The man nodded to himself. “Yes, about her mother. So, when you find her, give me a call. Don’t ask her to call me, because she won’t. She’ll think it’s a trick or something. But it’s not. So you call me. Will you do that, son?”

“Sh-sure,” Richard said, wondering if he was going get out of here alive after all.

“There’s a word,” the man rumbled, and turned his back to Richard to take up staring out through the blinds once more.

Richard waited for a brief moment and when nothing happened, he hurried to the door. He was already halfway out, when the deep rumble behind him said: “Don’t forget the card, son.”

Richard picked up a business card from a tall stack on a small table next to the door, and went outside.

He took a deep breath of the wet, cold air and shivered. He was alive!

The Benz was still standing where he had gotten out, but there was no trace of Snake and the Wart. As Richard did not particularly fancy another ride with the two Brothers Grimm of the mobster slasher tale he began to make his way across the miry waste land. When he reached the gate, muddied and wet, he found it still open. He walked to the next subway station and got onto the train home.

Only when he was back in his own apartment, his door closed provisionally by leaning a chair under the knob, the shakes set in. Richard crawled into his bed and cried.

Chapter 6

While in the weeks to come Richard slowly slipped back into his old life only to discover once more how grey and empty it was, Hoagputzer Glummdrengle was busy. He still resented the task appointed to him, but once he had made up his mind, resentful or not, he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

He mingled with the crowd, went to all the right parties and met with all the right people. At a drinking feast in the Crown and Lion, down Ludgate, he found his first recruit:

A friend of Hoagputzer’s nephew Blitherdrim, the wren was part of the crowd of young goodfellows that haunted the watering holes of the City. The little bird was boastful, as those of his family are wont to be, but also keen and bright-eyed; he was naive – although that hardly counted as a disadvantage as far as Hoagputzer was concerned – but so eager to please that the old gnome only had to drop a hint or two about some secret mission, for queen and country, only suitable for the best of the best, and the wren was practically begging to be let in on it.

A few weeks later Ratatosk, squirrel messenger of Asgard and greatest of scandalmongers in all the nine worlds, was drafted because of his unhealthy curiosity and being wildly known for his inability to keep a secret. It had happened like this:

During the revels in honour of the umpteen hundredth birthday of the Countess of Scathach – the Glummdrengles had been stout political allies of House Scathach since time immemorial, since way before they had specialized in wheelbarrows when they had still been barely tamed spirits of agriculture – Hoagputzer had by cautiously contrived chance been talking to Herne the Horned Man. It had happened on a wild hunt; after the game had been bagged and everyone was on the way back to the castle Hoagputzer had drawn Herne aside and involved him in a seemingly innocent conversation about the heroes of old, and how sometimes it was not the biggest, strongest, and most powerful heroes that got the deeds done, but rather the sly and stealthy one.

Ratatosk, curious as a cat and stealthy as a bat, had observed them and to his keen senses it had been apparent that the hoary old gnome was up to something. Detecting the whiff of secrecy, the squirrel had immediately taken upon himself the task of liberating those secrets for the world at large. He had run up to the pair along the branches of the trees and spied on them. He even might have made it, had not his impatience gotten the better of him.

Ratatosk knew all about body language and information retrieval techniques, and while Hoagputzer might be able to fool a rustic, straightforward god like Herne by claiming that his interest was only of a scholarly nature, the squirrel had seen through his act at once. So, just as they had reached the point where the Herne was telling the gnome just what qualities made such a sly and stealthy hero and who in this day and age might posses them, Ratatosk couldn’t restrain himself any longer and squeaked: “And what might you need such a hero for, old Glummdrengle?”

Hoagputzer knew enough of Ratatosk’s reputation to realise that his secret would be as good as out as soon as the nosy squirrel was back in polite society. For him only one course remained viable if he was to ensure the silence his principal had imposed: To Ratatosk’s great amazement he spilled the beans, told everything but the name of his principal. But before the squirrel could make his getaway with this treasure of information, Hoagputzer turned to Herne and implored the old Hunter to help him.

“This mission is of utmost importance to the summer lands, oh Horned One. Nothing about it must reach the ears of the enemy. You know as well as I do, that the Bushy Tailed Messenger cannot help but talk about it. I hereby recruit him as a member of the task force and officially charge him with a vow of silence until he is underway. Will you second my charge?”

Ratatosk could only squeeze in a high pitched “wait a sec” before the old god answered: “Thus it is witnessed. Ratatosk, Messenger of Asgard, you are not to speak to anyone or about anything until Gnome Glummdrengle has discharged you of this obligation, or all the hounds of hell shall be set upon you to chase you till the day the heavens may fall.”

Ratatosk sighed and fell silent. For all his chutzpah he would never dream of challenging the Master of the Wild Hunt. But inwardly he swore he would have revenge.

Chapter 7

Near the end of December, while elsewhere the pixie band was completing preparations for its journey to the real world, Richard dreamt. Later he would wonder if this had been just an ordinary dream with extraordinary consequences, or if it had been a sign by destiny, which might suddenly have been taking some renewed interest in his story. And although he would never learn the truth, we can safely announce at this point that it was indeed a message, though not from destiny.

The dream was being conveyed by an angel. Ezechiel was not a particularly romantic angel, mind you; he had been dealing with humanity for far too long. He somewhat detested this dream, but he was conveying it as an obligation to someone else, and he always paid his dues. It was something of a thing with him.

Earlier that day, Richard had been to a gallery in Mitte that had opened an exhibition of what to Richard had looked like clumsily sculptured plaster busts draped with freeze-dried animal organs. The common cold had left the musical accompaniment one violin short of the required quintet and so – purely for the money – Richard had spent the morning playing technically fascinating although harmonically excruciating twelve-tone pieces. The cello had been lagging behind one or two bars through most of the last two movements which none of the guests noticed. For the first time in his life Richard had seriously contemplated suicide.

Lost in misery Richard watched through a doorway as a young woman approach the art dealer. She was standing with her back towards him but something in her posture and motions made him look up. The art dealer was just shaking his head and his pinched face had ‘rejection’ written all over it – a writing Richard was only too familiar with. The woman hastily scribbled something down in a notebook, tore out the piece of paper and pressed it into the art dealer’s hand. He barely glanced at what she’d written only to shake his head again and mouth an exaggerated “no.” He left her standing in the hall.

Richard saw her hold her head high as she stood there and just as his heart went out to this proud stranger she turned and gazed into the gathered crowd. Not few of the folks sipping champagne and pretending to listen to the music had witnessed the exchange. For just a moment she braved their pitying looks before swallowing dry and turning away again. To Richard though this moment stretched into an eternity, as, after all the weeks of futile searching, he at long last beheld his princess again.

Just then, as if spurred by the mere presence of true beauty, the cello leapt ahead and came up to speed. The last of the twelve-tone pieces was nearing its furious finale. The art dealer reappeared and handed several rolled canvases to the princess. Without a word she left.

To Richard’s defence it must be said that he very seriously considered putting down his violin and following her right there and then – this was what every cell in his body demanded of him, so painfully aware was he of every step of distance her retreat brought between them – but in the end years of musical education and his exceedingly bourgeois upbringing won out over whatever remained of his heroism: Richard waited to the end of the piece and even through half of the polite applause the crowd paid to the fashionable modernism of the music, before he jumped up and raced towards the exit, no longer heeding whatever amused mutter and raised eyebrows he might evoke.

Destiny might excuse many things in prospective heroes: Rashness, temper, even stupidity. Indecisiveness however is not amongst them. And so, when Richard reached the sidewalk outside the art gallery, he was faced only with an endless stream of exhausted Christmas shoppers. Sovereignty Saumpfad was gone once more, and this time – Richard felt it – she was gone for good.

Richard was suddenly confronted with the immensity of his loss, a loss he knew nobody was responsible for but himself. This time there was no hesitation: He threw back his head and screamed wordlessly to the uncaring skies.

And that could have been the end. In fact, it would have been the end, had it not been for the Aisling – the dream – and for the angel Ezechiel.

Chapter 8

Hoagputzer never would have dared to ask Bran to join his little task force. For all his current remoteness the old god was generally held in far too high regard for the gnome to even consider him a prospective victim – and ‘victims’ was what he thought Ratatosk and the wren were, victims of the ‘good cause’ perhaps, but certainly victims of his principal.

So it was to Hoagputzer Glummdrengle’s great surprise that he was approached by Bran himself. He had been sitting in the Crown and Lion over a pint and a pipe, when the Great Seer – in his human form, as was his custom in the fair lands – had stepped up to him and asked, if he might take a seat.

“Certainly, certainly, my dear friend,” Hoagputzer had stuttered. “Ale?”

“Mead, if you please.”

Hoagputzer had ordered and turned to Bran.

“What brings me the honour of your company?”

Bran had regarded him for a long time. Then the pints had arrived and they had drunken to each other’s health. The Seer had wiped his broad hand across his bearded mouth before he answered:

“I have seen things… the endeavour you are involved in, it is of great importance.”

“It, so, ah-um…” Hoagputzer had stuttered. “It is?”

“Yes, much more than you may realize.”

Ouch, that stung. Hoagputzer had already felt slightly insulted by his principal’s lack of confidence in his discretion, but to find that others knew more about it than he did – even if it was famous seers…

“Well…” Hoagputzer had leaned forward conspiratorially. “What does it matter to you?”

Bran had been slightly taken aback by the sudden edge in the old Gnomes voice, but had pushed on nevertheless.

“I will accompany those you have already chosen.”

“You will?”

“It is decided, then?”

And without allowing Hoagputzer to think about it any longer, he had grasped the Gnome’s hand and shaken it. Thus it was sealed.

When two weeks later, the Hooded Crow had again visited Glummdrengle, Hoagputzer had given him the names of the chosen agents. If his principle had been at all surprised by the choice, he had not shown it. Instead he had given Glummdrengle the very instructions he had passed on to the band of messengers. The quest was this: To find the princess lost in Berlin and, upon finding her, to not do anything three times. After that they were free to return to the fair lands or to do whatever they pleased.

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