by Nicholas P. Snoek
Brother Andre has said his goodbyes and thank you's, and all is ready. He offers to bring up the rear but the two Dutchmen won't hear of it; he is constrained to take the lead, and Siem falls in behind. Waving cheerily, they depart.
Conversation is difficult in single file, so they ride mostly in silence. The cool tall oaks add an air of gentle mystery, fostering the musing mood they slip into. They stop several times where the woods open into clearings, and pick the tart barberries along the edges. At one of these quiet spots they watch a hill fox stalking mice, its rich red coat and black points vivid against the grey rocks.
A couple of hundred meters from the monastery, Brother Andre pulls off the trail, and jumping down with a sigh, scaring off two hoopoes, ties his horse. "Well, how shall we do this? Any ideas?"
Bertus, "We could just walk up the trail till we get in sight of the buildings and see what's happening."
Brother Andre, "If you're thinking of going right up to the gate I would stay back, myself. I don't want that officer to get any idea of finishing what he started, up here."
"To be sure. Why don't we just go up the trail to get the lay of the land before we decide anything."
Jack pipes up, "Could Viktor and I go through the woods? I'd like to find some of the spots I used to go to."
Siem, frowning at Viktor, "I'm not too keen on the idea of separating. Are you sure you won't get lost?"
"Oh no. I spent a lot of time hiking in the bush here. I know my way around. There's no chance at all of getting lost."
Bertus, "I think it'll be alright. But meet us back here in three hours at the latest. Everyone agree?"
They all nod their consent and the three men go down the trail while Jack and Viktor soon find a path and follow it, disappearing quickly between the trees.
"Viktor, going up the trail we'd probably only see a closed gate. I wanted to get away from the others so we can go around to the right here and get above the monastery. We can look down on it from a cliff. That way we can see right inside."
"Great! Good idea." The two boys scamper along. As they leave the trail and start climbing, it gets rougher, rocks and boulders make the footing treacherous and they keep slipping off the mossy rocks. It's hard on ankles and shins, but the leggings they wear to keep out leeches help some. Thickets of rhododendron are becoming more frequent, obscuring the path and limiting visibility.
Viktor starts to experience the dizziness his father spoke of, and they stop several times to give him a chance to recover. Three griffons, a type of vulture smaller than the lammergeier, circle overhead repeatedly, as if keeping an eye on the two young trespassers.
The men, in the meantime, have reached the last turn in the trail and are watching the monastery.
There is no sign of life. The gate is closed but they see no movement and hear no sound of any kind, even after they stand quietly for some five minutes.
Bertus, "You know, I can't help feeling there's nobody in there. What do you think."
Brother Andre, "That's exactly what I was thinking. Let's get closer."
They walk right up to the gate, and stop to listen again. All they hear is the sound of some Asian redstarts flittering about, offended at their presence.
Siem, "Well, if there's some thirty soldiers in there, they've got to be the quietest soldiers you could imagine. Let's try the gate."
And without further ado he pushes on it. It swings open. It wasn't even latched, and the compound looks as if no one had ever been there. The three men walk in, and it becomes obvious the place is deserted. The soldiers have disappeared, the same way they came -- suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably.
Brother Andre, briskly, "Common areas and the chapel are all over that way. Would you two have a look around over there? I'll check out the private cells."
And quickly he goes to his study. It is quite intact. Even his books remain on the shelves, apparently more or less as he left them. But he has something specific in mind. He steps to the outer wall, and wiggles a big rock loose. It slides out, and he deftly grabs some papers out of the opening. One of them is a dog eared envelope. He looks at them all briefly, then puts everything back except the envelope, which he slides under his robe.
The good priest walks about for a while, and when he's satisfied the monastery is essentially as it was left, he rejoins the others. None of them have found any indication of the reason for the sudden disappearance of the soldiers, although most of the living area and the kitchen especially, shows plenty of evidence of their stay. A major cleanup is in order; rats and mice are everywhere.
The boys have reached the place Jack had in mind, but find the undergrowth is so thick they can't get a good view of the buildings. "Jack, let's find a tree we can climb. One that leans out so we can get a better view."
"That's a bit scary. A tree leaning out over a cliff. If we fall it's going to be a long ways down."
"Oh come on! Why should we fall? I've climbed up trees plenty. In our yard at home there's a big horse chestnut tree, with wide branches all over. It's huge! I spent a lot of time in it. When the leaves are on in the summer you can be up in there and nobody knows you're even in the tree at all. You can hide in it and watch the others down below. That's fun. Look, there's a good one right there, see? It's leaning way out."
Jack demurs a bit, but finally relents and the two of them shinney up the angled fir till there are limbs they can grab. They go up, and up. Higher and higher, peering through for an ever better view.
There seems to be no activity in the compound. Viktor starts to slide out away from the trunk, on a large limb.
"What are you doing? Don't do that. You've got nothing to hold onto."
"I'm okay. It's as thick as my leg, I can balance here."
The boys are straining to see what they can. Jack murmurs "I can't see any movement down there. Wonder what's going on."
Suddenly Viktor says in a weak voice...
"Jack -- I'm... I'm getting... dizzy...!"
And to Jack's horror, Viktor reels and starts to slip. He's sliding off the branch, scratching at it ineffectively. And he falls. And falls... Thump! Down into the bushes far, far below. Jack's heart leaps into his throat! He clings to the trunk, hanging on for dear life. He's in a cold sweat, and feels dizzy himself. He can't see Viktor, and there's no sound.
The woods are deathly still. The only movement is up above, where the griffons arc back and forth, relentlessly scanning the ground. They've come closer now.
After several minutes Jack is able to start coming down. He's shaking so badly he has to stop repeatedly to regain the use of his arms and legs. His hands and his arms hurt from clutching the trunk and branches, and his knees feel like jelly.
He has to go see if Viktor is lying there with a broken leg or something. What's he going to say to the others? It takes him twenty minutes of desperate effort to work his way around to the area where Viktor must have dropped. He looks about frantically, trying again and again to pick out the right tree above, to line up with it so he can locate his friend.
At last he finds some broken branches, and following them down, locates Viktor.
He's not moving. There's blood all over! Oh, God!
Jack gets closer, but he can see already, there is little hope. His head is bleeding, and above one eye the forehead looks as if it is pushed in, and bluish! So much blood!
But as he bends over, he can see Viktor's chest is moving! He's still alive! His leg is twisted, and his arm is stuck under his body. Jack gently straightens the leg -- he can tell it's broken. And he disentangles the arm. It seems to be alright. What to do?
"Viktor, Viktor! Can you hear me? Wake up, look at me. It's Jack! Hello, Hello! Viktor."
There is no response. Jack watches closely. The breathing is not regular, and not deep. He has to find the others, quick! He runs off down the hill as fast as he can.
He comes bursting out of the trees at about the place where one can first see the monastery. He sees no one down the trail, and there is no one between him and the monastery. But look! The gate is open! He runs closer to see if anyone is around. And yes, the three men are standing in the compound.
"Brother Andre, Mr Spiets, come quick! Come! Viktor fell, and he broke his leg. He's bleeding from his head, and I can't wake him up."
Siem, "He broke his leg?"
Bertus, "Whereabouts is he? Where, from here?"
"Just below that hill over there. He fell out of the tree and down the hill."
Siem, "He fell out of a tree? What were you two doing?"
"We climbed the tree to see down here, so we could see better. But he got dizzy and fell."
Bertus, "Good God! Let's go. The rest of you go straight up there. Jack, you go with them, show them where. I'm going to get the horses. I'll bring them over as close as I can, then I'll try to figure out what we can do for a stretcher to carry him. We may be able to use a sleeping bag somehow."
But when they reach Viktor they do not need a stretcher. A blanket will do.
He is dead.