MAXIM ELPHBERG - XX
‘I am sorry for my cousin Paul, but especially for Pip and Sissi.’ Prince Leopold had asked for the news of Templerstadt and Welf had told him. ‘He was fighting against my emperor for his king, but it is still sad that he may be dead and his children have no father.’
Welf and Ulrica had returned to Ernsthof on the Friday. They’d had to stay for the aftermath of the tragic telegram from Flanders. The news had not been broken to the rest of the guests until after the wedding banquet and the departure of Osku and Cecilie to their honeymoon on Lake Maritz.
No one had pretended that ‘missing in action’ meant anything other than dead and unaccounted for. The nature of the fighting on the western front was known even in Rothenia. Helga had come down to breakfast on Thursday in black. The local priest had said a mass for Paul’s soul in the chapel at Templerstadt, which they all attended, even Ulrica, though she was not a Catholic. King Maxim had remained for the mass too, before taking a very affected farewell from Helga and the children, who were to stay on at Templerstadt for the foreseeable future.
‘There is other news I must share with your royal highness, which will upset you even more, I fear. Your grandfather has been denounced as an English spy. He was arrested last week and no one knows where he is being held.’
The boy stared at him. ‘Then I will go to father and he will put it right.’
Welf hated himself for what he now had to say. ‘I’m afraid, sir, that it may have been your father who had him arrested.’ Racing on without giving Leopold time for doubts, he launched into the next part of his explanation. ‘Why do you think I came to this place in disguise, sir? Your father has no intention of letting you see your mother or her family … you know that. What better way to remove them than by having them denounced as spies? Your grandfather was born in England, after all.’
The boy stared at Welf, hesitant to contradict him but unwilling to let his father be attacked. Welf was not happy to put Leopold in this position, but the prince had to know the truth. Eventually he said, ‘I believe you are mistaken. My father can be angry and bad tempered, but I do not think he would do that to my grandfather. There has just been a mistake by the government, that is all.’
Welf gave an internal sigh. He could not blame the prince for standing up for his father. ‘As you say, sir. I will pursue my enquiries and hope that soon all will be made clear. I’m sorry if I upset you.’
Leopold nodded. ‘These are hard times, Herr von Tarlenheim, even I as a boy know that. Do you think it will help if I talk to my father?’
‘No sir, quite the opposite.’
‘Then I shall say nothing.’
‘Thank you, sir. Now, despite everything else, the great body of Classical literature is still there to be read. Perhaps I should earn my fee for teaching you now.’
Welf opened his book, ignoring the troubled look with which Leopold was regarding him from under his dark lashes. They commenced work.
‘I think we should be trying something else, Welf.’ He and Ulrica lay looking up at the ceiling from their bed, after reviewing their day.
‘What, kidnap the king and beat the information out of him?’
She giggled. ‘An idea with some dangers involved. But who knows? If all else fails, my Welf might be up to it.’
‘Apart from the hefty guardsmen who surround him ... they could be a problem. But I might lure them down to the cellar of the Ernestinum and club them round the head with Etruscan inscriptions.’
‘I talked to the princess today.’
‘I didn’t realise you saw her.’
‘Only occasionally. I’m still supposed to have English conversational classes with her once a month. Today was one of them. It struck me that she might be more useful as a source of information than little Leo.’
‘And what did you find out?’
‘It wasn’t easy to find out anything from her. She was very moody today. I think she is in conflict with both her parents. The king and queen both want her to marry, though for different reasons. I believe the queen wishes to leave Germany as soon as her daughter is safely married. There will be nothing to keep her here then. She will seek a home with her Danish or Greek relatives. So she is pressing Vicky to go along with her father’s plans.’
‘I suppose royal families have always been like that. But to put such pressure on a young woman seems cruel to me.’
‘There is a romantic deep inside you, Welf. I think that’s why I love you. You want to be the knight who climbs the tower and sets free the sleeping princess from the witch’s spell.’
‘Just like I did for you.’
‘That is hardly a nice way to refer to my mother.’
‘None taken. Maybe one day she will accept the fact of our love, when she knows that you are an aristocrat and not just a poor student.’
‘You didn’t tell her?’
‘Well … no. I wanted her to accept you as Welf, not Welf Felix Adolphus Hugo Maria von Tarlenheim zu Templerstadt, offspring of a princely house. But it turned out that she didn’t care for common Welf the foreign tutor.’
‘Did you get anything out of Princess Vicky?’
‘Very little, other than her hopes that her father will soon receive his posting to General Ludendorff’s command on the Hindenburg line.’
‘I suppose that’s something. He may soon be gone again. What are we going to do, Rica?’
‘I don’t know, darling: watch and wait, I suppose.’
‘That does not seem enough. I will go and find Lobowicz, the consul, to see if he knows anything.’
The Rothenian consulate was situated in a narrow medieval street running from the Hohe Markt down to the river. The familiar tricolour hanging above the lintel looked out of place in Ernsthof. Welf found the door ajar and pushed it open. He was in an entrance hall leading deeper into the house. Behind a hatch was a small office where a bespectacled woman looked up at him.
‘May I see Herr Lobowicz, please?’
‘I’m sorry, we’re taking no more repatriation cases.’
‘It’s not about repatriation. It’s a personal matter.’
‘Then I need more information. Are you a Rothenian national?’
‘Yes. Look, these are my papers. Show them to Herr Lobowicz.’
She looked dubious, but disappeared with them. A few minutes later she reappeared in the hall and ushered Welf through a side door. The consul stood to greet him and shook his hand.
‘Herr von Tarlenheim, a pleasure. I know your uncle, the general, a little. A fine man. I’m sorry for the delay in seeing you, but we are overwhelmed at the moment with young Mittenheimers who enlisted in the Thuringian battalions, got fed up and want to return home. We just do not have the money, and they have not been paid by the German authorities. However, you have your own problems, no doubt.’
‘The principal one is what happened to Augustus Underwood.’
Lobowicz looked shifty. ‘I can’t tell you much. All we know is that on Monday he left his villa in Bertesheim early and took the Bayreuth train en route to Modenheim. He never reached our frontier. He may have been apprehended on the train or at Bayreuth. I have been pressing the local authorities here, who deny any knowledge of him or his whereabouts.’
‘So how do you know he was arrested?’
‘The police commandant for northern Bavaria admitted that an English spy was taken into custody within his district on that Monday. He had no knowledge that the arrested man had Rothenian nationality. He refused to discuss what happened to him and referred me to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.’
‘Did you follow his suggestion?’
‘Yes, and got nowhere. I’ve had our Foreign Ministry at me day in and day out. Mr Underwood was a friend of the king’s, who is very angry about this. But what can I do? German bureaucracy can be impenetrable if it so chooses.
‘I have personally telephoned the governors of the Kloster Ebrach and Landsberg prisons, neither of whom will discuss any foreign prisoners they may have within their walls.’
Clearly Lobowicz knew little about what was going on, so Welf took his leave. He was bitterly frustrated, because there seemed nothing he could do either but wait. He resolved to contact Colonel Sachert on Sunday.
That Thursday, Leopold was full of something, and kept fidgeting until Welf called a halt to the lesson and asked him what the matter was. The boy put down his pen. ‘I still don’t know whether to believe what you said about father, Herr von Tarlenheim.’
‘Let’s say no more about it, sir.’
Still he ploughed on. ‘But as father and I were sitting together after dinner last night, and I was reading, he answered a telephone call. He was talking to a man called Colonel Schwartz and they were having an argument. Father wanted something the colonel had in his possession to be transferred to Schloss Ebert. The colonel was not happy with the request. He was saying that he took his orders from Berlin, not Ernsthof, and that Königstein answered directly to the Ministry of War.’
‘What is Schloss Ebert?’
The boy bit his lip. ‘It is in the Black Mountains, a fortress still owned by our family, though we don’t live there. It is a military prison for our army, and it has a garrison still, I think.’
Welf did not need to ask about Königstein. It was a notoriously impregnable fortress on the border between Saxony and Rothenia, currently being used to hold captured French and Russian officers. So the implication, clear even to Leopold, was that his grandfather had been taken there after being arrested, and that Albert was plotting to have Gus delivered into his own custody.
‘Thank you for telling me this, Leo. I think I know how much it must have cost you.’
‘You called me Leo.’
‘I’m sorry, sir.’
‘No, I like it.’
‘Then call me Welf, we’re distant cousins, you know.’
‘We are? Then I suppose it is perfectly proper. What are we going to do about grandfather, Welf?’
‘We? Now hold on. When did this become your affair?’
The boy gave his rare smile. ‘When you told me I had a grandfather.’
Welf contemplated the statue of St Fenice of Tarlenheim in the church of St Ignatius Loyola. His ancestress was depicted as an abbess, with a book in her hand and the customary two small children clinging to her robes. Welf had lit seven candles lined up in a row in front of her.
He nodded with a certain satisfaction. The Virgin Mary at the next pillar had a forest fire of candles at her feet. Fenice ought to be remembered from time to time, especially by her descendant. She even seemed to be smiling a little in the flickering flames beneath her. Since he was there in the darkening church, Welf said some prayers, most urgently for Pip and Sissi, and for little Leo and his sister, because he knew Fenice favoured prayers for children above others.
Welf left the church and wondered whether indeed the Rothenian secret service would notice his signal. He had his answer that night. A knock brought him to his door, where he found Colonel Sachert.
‘Is it safe to talk, Welf?’
Ulrica had stood when he entered. Welf rejoined, ‘Fraulein Schmidt is on the same mission as I am. She’s to be trusted.’
Sachert took off his hat. ‘Very well then, may I sit?’
They settled down in the flat’s small lounge. ‘So what is the emergency?’
‘We have information.’ Welf explained what they had learned from Lobowicz and from Prince Leopold. Sachert was quiet when he finished. ‘That’s useful to know. Mr Underwood’s daughter has also disappeared, as I’m sure you’ve heard. We think that in her case a tipoff from her Spartacist friends allowed her to get away and go into hiding before the police knocked on her door in Wannsee. She is probably still in Berlin.’
‘And Marek Rustak?’ Welf was guilty at not asking that question before.
‘The Underwood family steward and valet. What’s happened to him?’
‘I have no information about him, I’m afraid.’
‘Now we know where Gus is, what can we do?’
‘The Schloss Ebert is a formidable mountain fortress. One cannot just walk up to the front door and ring the bell. Nor are we certain Mr Underwood is there. He may still be at Königstein. However, knowing where he may be now and where he may end up, I have some sources that might help.’
Welf looked a question, and Sachert smiled. ‘It won’t hurt if you know this. When Mittenheimer Germans flooded across the frontier to enlist in the Thuringian divisions, several of them were not quite the straightforward recruits they might have appeared. They were as happy to work for our intelligence as strike a blow for the empire. Some of them are now in quite convenient places. I can activate them and find out what they are able to tell me. I will be back here in a week’s time, when I may have some news to report.’ He left them rather more hopeful than he had found them.
‘What about us, Welf,’ Ulrica asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The time is approaching when you must leave Ernsthof. The crisis has come. Mr Underwood has been arrested, and his fate is going to be decided elsewhere in Thuringia. Your tutor’s job is no longer necessary. You must move on, and where you go, my love, I go too.’
‘I hadn’t thought of it like that, but yes … the time is come to move on. This would better be our last week at the castle as tutors. But oh! … how shall I say goodbye to Leo?’
‘It will be hard for him, but he will understand that we are going to try to save his grandfather.’
‘That doesn’t help me, really. He has had too little friendship in his life. It can only grieve him, poor child. But there’s nothing to be done. Uncle August’s fate is in the balance.’
On Tuesday afternoon, Welf walked up leaden-hearted to the castle. He had too much respect for Leopold to mislead the boy about his intentions. But should he leave it till Thursday, his last teaching day?
Baroness Altmann was looking unusually flustered when he encountered her outside the schoolroom. This was so odd that Welf asked her what was the matter. She just shook her head.
When Welf’s turn came to enter the room, he was aghast to see Leopold sporting a black eye and bruises down the left side of his face.
‘Good God, Leo!’
The boy looked at him rather embarrassed, Welf thought. ‘Oh! Er … Herr von … I mean, Welf.’
‘What happened to your face?’
‘It was an accident, truly.’ Welf just stared. The boy continued. ‘Look, Welf, it was not my father’s fault. Not really. He didn’t mean to do it.’
The prince flushed beetroot red and seemed on the verge of tears. ‘He was arguing with Vicky again, and … and he took his riding crop and threatened her with it. I ran to put myself between them and … it was an accident.’
‘You mean he brought it down and hit you instead of her.’
The boy began to cry, and Welf had no idea what to do. He had never been struck by either of his parents – hardly surprising, as his father was a blind man. The idea of a father beating his child horrified Welf, though he knew it often happened.
Unconsciously, he reached out to Leopold, and suddenly found himself with an armful of anguished child, who buried his head in Welf’s shoulder and flung his arms round his neck. Welf felt the small body shaking with sobs, and the wetness soaking into the shoulder of his jacket. He held the boy tightly, rocking him gently until he subsided.
Welf got out a handkerchief and dried Leopold’s face. Then he gave it to the boy, telling him to blow his nose. Leopold giggled at Welf’s reaction when he offered the hanky back.
‘Alright now, Leo?’
‘Yes, thank you. I’m sorry …’
‘You needn’t be. We’re family, and boys are allowed to cry, you know.’
‘Father doesn’t think so.’
‘Has this happened before?’
‘The beating? No. I’ve never seen him as angry as that before. But Vicky was very angry, too. She called him terrible things. I covered my ears.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘He took her by the arm and dragged her away. I don’t know where. He sent Baroness Altmann to tend to me. I told her it was an accident, but I don’t think she believed me.’
Welf brooded, staring at Leopold’s discoloured face. Then, Tarlenheim as he was, he came to a decision.
‘Leo, I think it is time for an adventure.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It is time for you to leave this place, and for me to take you.’
‘Take me where?’
‘To your family, to those who will love you.’
‘To my grandfather and my mother?’
‘First we must find them, but yes. Will you come?’
Leopold stared and nodded. ‘I would so like to meet Pip.’
Welf laughed. ‘You won’t be disappointed.’ Then his face became pensive. But how to do it?
Ulrica and Welf had a council of war in their flat that same night. He introduced her to his money belt and she wonderingly counted the gold disks. ‘This is enough to buy over a regiment.’
‘As long as it’s enough to buy a passage out of Germany, that’s the main thing.’
‘Thursday’s the best day.’
‘Why do you say that, Rica?’
‘I teach Leo just before you do, and then I have my customary tea with Baroness Altmann. If you take him straight away and somehow get him out of the castle, it might be an hour before he’s missed. With a car waiting and enough petrol, you could be a long way away with him by the time the alarm is raised.’
‘And what about you?’
‘I’ll just leave when I can. No one there knows that you and I are lovers, so there is no reason to suspect me.’
‘It won’t work, Rica. Firstly, we’ll need Colonel Sachert’s help, and we won’t see him till the weekend. Secondly, we need to know more about Uncle August and Antonia, let alone that strange man, Marek Rustak. Thirdly, we need to take time to plan our crossing of the frontier. All the police and army between Ernsthof and Modenheim will be called out’
‘Very logical, just like a man. But what if his father decides to move the court somewhere else? He could do so at any moment. It’s too risky just to cut and run.’
At that moment the lights went out. The power failures, which were becoming more frequent, were increasingly inconvenient as winter closed in. Ulrica found the matches and they lit candles already set out for the purpose. They huddled into each other on the sofa, the room cold because coal was scarce.
Eventually they agreed to wait until Sachert’s visit on Sunday before planning the details of Leo’s abduction. Ulrica mused, ‘Should we tell the colonel?’
‘I would say no. He’d be obliged to talk us out of what could be a major international incident if it goes wrong.’
‘Oh! Yes, I see what you mean. The involvement of Rothenian intelligence could make nonsense of your country’s neutrality.’
‘Our country now, Rica. I’ve just annexed you in the name of King Maxim.’
‘A very attractive man.’
‘I’ll pretend I did not hear that.’
Leo was eager for his meeting with Welf on Wednesday, and disappointed that they were not to be off that very day. Welf sat him down and discussed the situation seriously. Were there things he wanted to keep, and could he transfer them to the school room? Welf would bring a canvas sack in his briefcase to load up with any toys and books the prince would want to take. Clothes would have to be provided en route.
Leo nodded with approval. ‘This is very organised, Welf. I can see that you take after the famous field marshal your ancestor. I was reading his Memoirs last night. He was a brave and good man too.’
Welf blushed. He detected the hero worship developing in this lonely boy, and it made him uncomfortable. It was his uncles who were dashing and heroic. He was the sedentary scholar.
Welf was sleeping badly, a thing he put down to nervous tension. His dreams were uncomfortable. One in particular woke him again and again in a sweat. It seemed to be early morning and he was on a grey lawn, beaded with dew. A ground mist was creeping across the grass out of distant woodland. A black, anonymous figure faced him, drifting towards him rather than walking. Welf was in his shirt sleeves and armed with a rapier. He engaged the phantom figure, but all the passes he made and all the feints could not prevent its coming closer. The nearer it came, the more enervating was the chill that penetrated his arm and fingers. Eventually it rushed to close with him, flapping in quite a horrible and indescribable way. Just before it reached him, he would wake with a cry.
Ulrica stirred dozily next to him the last time it happened. He snuggled back into her, seeking her warmth and the reassurance of her body.
An odd thing occurred on the Friday. Welf had gone out to find something for them to eat on the weekend. It was getting to be a difficult chore. Chronic inflation in the empire meant the price of food was surpassing their ability to pay for it. That day, for the first time, Welf had taken one of the gold Flavieners from his belt and found a bank where he could change it into a very large sheaf of paper marks. He bought as much food as he could get away with.
The power was off again when he returned to the apartment block in Neuhof, so he had to toil up the five flights to their flat through a dark stairwell. The scuff of his steps echoed in the confined space, almost as if someone else was climbing with him. But when he got to their door on the penultimate landing, no one was there, or on the stairs to the top floor. His nerves were so much on edge that he was fit to jump at shadows.
He found himself shaking when he deposited the bags in the kitchen. He had to sit down a moment, hoping this was just another symptom of nervous stress. He feared he was not the stuff of which adventurers were made.
The second happening was much stranger. Ulrica came in that same evening very flustered, which was most unlike her. She seemed surprised to see him. ‘Oh, darling! You got home quickly!’
‘I’ve been shopping in town.’
She stared at him. ‘That’s not … are you sure? Yes, of course you know where you have been. How very strange.’
Welf looked a question.
She continued, ‘I was coming out of the institute after my last class. It was getting dark. The trams had ground to a halt because the power had gone down. I was resigning myself to the long walk home when the lines crackled and the trams hummed back to life.
‘This is the strange thing. I heard someone call my name. I looked back over my shoulder, and there you were, or at least I thought you were. You were standing looking at me from the terrace of the institute, leaning on a stick.’
‘A stick? I never carry a stick.’
‘Well yes, yet it was you to the life. But as I turned back there was a flash and a shower of sparks. One of the overhead tram cables had snapped and fallen to the road – a power surge I expect. It snaked across the pavement and electrocuted a poor dog which was standing just where I had been before I turned around. Can you believe it? And then when I looked back to the terrace, no one was there. I must have imagined it. You’re always on my mind, after all.’
‘How … very odd,’ Welf commented slowly. ‘It was getting dark. You can see odd things as the light fades.’
‘Yes, that was what I thought, too.’
But they gazed at each other, troubled.
On Sunday, Colonel Sachert arrived promptly. Welf reflected that regular timekeeping in a spy was not the best of strategies.
The colonel settled appreciatively to a cup of the coffee Welf had brought from Rothenia. ‘Your young friend the prince was quite right. Last weekend, Augustus Underwood was transferred to Schloss Ebert where he is being held in close confinement as a state prisoner. There is no word of a trial. I rather think Albert will try to keep him there and throw away the key.’
‘What about Miss Underwood?’
‘No word of her, which is probably good news. I would guess she is in a safe house operated by one of the Communist cells in the capital. She is at least beyond Albert’s reach. I’m trying to locate her, but it really is a task exceeding my resources. With my Berlin people fully extended monitoring troop movements and diplomatic activity, one woman lost in a big city is … well, there is no chance.’
‘And what do we do about Mr Underwood?’
‘I really don’t know. I have a Mittenheimer contact within the schloss, one of the officers. It might be possible, with a hefty-enough bribe, to induce him to collaborate in an escape.’
‘Then I can help.’ Welf retrieved the canvas belt from a cupboard and handed it to Sachert.
He weighed it with surprise. ‘How much is in here?’
‘Two hundred gold Flavieners.’
‘My word! That’s more than the Mittenheimer’s worth.’
‘It’s what I brought the gold to Thuringia for, so take it.’
‘I will, and thank you.’
‘How soon can you get to work on the escape?’
‘The king is breathing down my neck. Next week, I suppose. In fact, I’ll be out there tomorrow. I have taken a room in a local inn. At such times, I employ the persona of a commercial traveller’
‘I need to know where to contact you … if Prince Leopold comes up with any more intelligence.’
Sachert smiled. ‘What a source to have! Very well, just this once. This is the address near Schloss Ebert where I will be next week. There is a telephone number. Ask for Herr Dinkelrode.’
Once Sachert had gone, Welf and Ulrica looked at each other. She was smiling slightly. It was borne in on Welf that his soul mate was a woman with a taste for danger. ‘This is the plan …’ he began.
‘I need you to change into these, Leo.’ It was Thursday and the time had come. Although Welf’s heart was beating fast, his head was cool. He produced a bundle of clothes from his bulging brief case. They included a nondescript woollen jacket, linen shirt, knee socks and short trousers he and Ulrica had selected from a suburban bon marché, the sort the respectable working class shopped in.
Leopold nodded and took off the sailor suit he was wearing. He stripped to his underwear and swarmed into the rougher clothes. He was soon the very picture of a plebeian city youth. When Welf placed a cloth cap askew on his head, the result was perfect. Despite the circumstances, the boy was grinning. ‘Do we go now, Welf?’
‘Yes we do. You are now Karl Schmidt, the fatherless child of Frau Ulrica Schmidt, or so these papers say.’
‘Still illegitimate then …’ the boy observed, without batting an eyelid. Clearly it was something he thought about a lot. He took up the canvas sack which Welf had produced, and stuffed it hastily with a number of books and toys. Slinging it over his shoulder, he pronounced himself, ‘Ready!’
‘Then we go. Shake hands!’
Man and boy solemnly took each other’s hand, and then, Welf gripping Leo’s shoulder, they were outside in the corridor.
For the moment, Leo acted as guide. They could not leave by the guarded Stable Gate, where papers were meticulously checked by soldiers and police. They had to take a laborious detour through internal passages to a postern which was locked but unguarded. Leo had described the route to Welf, who had been able to pinpoint where in the walls the exit door was. In a street some hundred yards away from it was a waiting car, loaded with petrol and their belongings.
This was the dangerous and unpredictable part of the escape. A passing servant might give the alarm, or they might be observed by a guard. Leo led the way to a door at the other end of the corridor to the one Welf normally used. He could hear the clink of tea things from inside the last door they passed: Ulrica distracting Baroness Altmann while the two fugitives made good their escape.
The door gave on to a spiral staircase that ascended a wall turret. They climbed up it to the top, where a door gave access to a low-pitched lead roof behind a parapet. They walked a hundred yards along the battlements, the city spread out below them beneath high grey cloud. It was a cold day in late November and the wind tugged at their clothes. Leo took off his cap rather than lose it.
At the end of the parapet, another spiral stair took them downwards. ‘You really do know this castle,’ Welf observed.
‘Vicky and I would play hide and seek all over this wing. It was such fun. But now she’s gone.’ Princess Victoria Matild had been sent into virtual confinement with her father’s Saxon relatives until she saw sense.
The winding stair descended to a residential block. This was where things were going to become difficult. At the third landing, Leo paused before a door, which he opened a crack and peered through. Then he silently beckoned Welf to follow him.
They were in a carpeted corridor with windows deeply set into the exterior walls of the castle. Everything was quiet, yet Welf’s scalp prickled and a shiver ran up his spine. He had the distinct impression of someone behind him, so much so that he jerked around to look. They were alone. His nerves were getting the better of his judgement.
The corridor seemed endless, but they got safely to the double-leaved door at its end. Again, Leo opened it a crack and peered through. All was silent. Now they were in a grand gallery with portraits of the Thuringian dynasty running down one wall, including one of Albert wearing the uniform of a Ruritanian field marshal and the insignia of the order of the Rose. On the opposite side were tall windows opening on to the city roofs below. Trophies of arms were placed between the windows.
Leo and Welf walked quickly to the other end, where a side door led to a small staircase which ended at the postern. Leo had taken the key to it from the lock earlier that morning, and it was in Welf’s pocket. ‘Nearly there,’ the boy hissed.
But as Welf put his hand on the doorknob, there came a clicking noise as claws scraped on flagstones, and a large hunting dog emerged from a neighbouring door. It looked at them both, and went to sniff at Leo. ‘Oh no!’ the boy exclaimed. ‘It’s Brutus, that means …’
King Albert emerged on to the gallery, saw them and stopped as if stunned. But it was not Leo he was staring at, it was Welf. ‘You! Good God! It’s not possible. This is devilry!’
Guessing what Albert thought he had seen, Welf removed his glasses and straightened his back. His neck prickled and his hair seemed to rise. A surge of confidence, like adrenalin, rushed through his body.
He hated this man. Albert had raised his hands against his own son and daughter, as well as killing Welf’s uncle. His Tarlenheim blood, the blood of warriors and saints, was fully up. Those who thought they knew the scholar Welf would have had difficulty recognising him in his present mood. He thrust his spectacles into his breast pocket. As he did so, he noticed that Leo had caught the dog Brutus and pulled it, growling and scrabbling at the polished floorboards, through the door to the stairs, before slamming closed the door behind him.
Without having to think about it, Welf realised he knew exactly what to say. ‘My dear Albert. Time has not been too kind to you, has it? The extra weight just does not suit you. You were a good-looking oaf once, and in certain circumstances …’
‘Who in the devil’s name are you?’
To his own astonishment, Welf gave a light and rather annoying laugh. ‘Now there you are, you Protestants certainly have an unimaginative theology. Where was it you thought you had sent me? The bad news for you is that destinations really do depend on conduct in this life, and mine was simply not bad enough to send me where you thought I should go. Yours, on the other hand …’
There was no mistaking the terror now on Albert’s face. His watery blue eyes were standing out and beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. The dog Brutus was barking on the other side of the door and scratching at it.
Albert reeled back and seized a sabre from a wall trophy. It gave a ringing noise as it was drawn. ‘I’ve killed you once, you demon, and it wasn’t so hard! Come at me, damn you!’
‘What, I, unarmed as I am?’ Welf now had a broad grin on his face. He began walking unconcernedly towards Albert, who backed away from him. He plucked another sabre from the wall display and tested it. Finding it to his satisfaction, he placed himself on guard.
‘None of that slippery, wet grass today, old fellow, is there? You had an unfair advantage that time. A gentleman would have allowed me to even the odds with a change of shoes. But a gentleman is what you are not.
The swords rang as Albert slashed at Welf. ‘Shut … your … damned … mouth!’ He spoke through gritted teeth as he swung at Welf’s head. But he was easily parried. Welf was in fit condition and a good swordsman, whereas his opponent was bemused and his nerve badly shaken.
Welf began his attack. The blades flickered and crashed between them as he kept up a light and sarcastic commentary. ‘So, dear fellow, how are things? Not going too well with the wife and children, I understand. But then, you were never particularly lovable, were you? That’s the thing, you see. Children need love, and you had none to give.’
‘What in hell do you know about children and love …?’
‘Oh, love was never a problem for me, I loved a lot … though perhaps not wisely.’ Welf laughed again, enjoying himself outrageously. His attack continued, backing Albert down the gallery. ‘Now how do you think this will end, hmm?’
‘With me decapitating your grinning head!’ snarled Albert. ‘Then you can return to the abyss whence you came!’
‘You think I’m the devil? Dear chap, the reverse is really the case!’
And if Welf thought he had seen terror on Albert of Thuringia’s face before, now he saw the full depths of panic and horror in the man.
The swords clashed in time to Welf’s points. ‘You have no conscience, Albert. You have a desire only to slake your lust for power. You enjoy tormenting the innocent and … as for killing, well we know what a thrill that gives you! No, it isn’t I who’s the demon here.’
Welf’s hand executed a complex and controlled arabesque. Albert’s sabre flew up, crashed to the floor and slid along a stretch of polished boards. The king stood disarmed, biting his lips, his arms outstretched. The point of Welf’s blade rested below his chin.
‘So how do you think this will end?’ Welf asked again.
Albert’s teeth were chattering with fear, but he rallied. ‘Kill me now and be damned to you!’
‘Ah … now that is the question! Damnation. It lasts a long time, and life is so short. You have time to make amends. Use it.’ Welf brought his knuckle guard up under Albert’s chin and laid him out flat on the gallery floor.
He looked down at the king, the sabre falling from his suddenly nerveless fingers. He felt as though he had been released from a powerful grip. He sought his spectacles. What in God’s name had just happened?
He stumbled to the door to the stairway and wrenched it open. There was Leopold sitting on the top step, his hands gripping Brutus’s collar. The dog leapt free and ran to his prostrate master, snuffling about his face.
When Welf gently put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, the prince looked up at him with scared eyes. ‘My father?’
Welf smiled down compassionately. ‘He’ll wake up with a headache, but he lives.’
‘You frightened me! You did not seem to be … you, just now, when I caught your eye as I pulled the dog away into the stair.’
‘I’d try to explain it for you, although I’m not entirely sure what just happened myself. But hurry! We have been given extra time to escape, I think, and we must not waste it.’ Hand in hand, they ran down the steps and out of the castle.