Chapter 1: Like Flour Falling Through a Great Sieve
Krabat was unable to speak. It was as if he'd been turned to stone. But the Kantorka put her arm around his shoulders and wrapped him in her woolen shawl. It was warm, soft and warm, like a protective cloak.
“Let's go, Krabat.”
He let her lead him out of the mill, through the Koselbruch and towards Schwarzkollm.
“How,” he asked her, as they saw the lights of the village glimmering between the tree trunks, one here, another there, “did you tell me apart from the other journeymen?”
“I could feel that you were afraid,” she said, “afraid on my behalf. That's how I recognized you.”
As they walked towards the houses, it started to snow, gently and in fine flakes, like flour falling through a great sieve.
(Otfried Preußler, Krabat)
“What do you go by?” asked Krabat. “This whole time, I was not allowed to know, as it could put you in danger. But now that it's all over, I would very much like to learn your name.”
The Kantorka smiled. “Elka,” she said.
“Elka,” Krabat repeated. “That sounds beautiful.” He also smiled.
A buzzard flew alongside them. Krabat whipped around to look at it. He could see that the bird had only one eye, a single, bright eye and its gaze pierced him. Then the buzzard veered off with a hoarse cry, flying in the direction of Koselbruch.
The snow that lay on the path and the trees at once turned to flour dust. It swirled, and as it got into Krabat's eyes, the Kantorka blurred and disappeared, until there was nothing before him but a white wall of flour.
Krabat awoke with a yell. Had he only dreamed it all? He looked around and saw that he was lying on his bunk in the attic. The other journeymen were there as well, and all of them seemed fast asleep. Only Hanzo moved restlessly, but he also slept.
Krabat thought quickly. Of the day before, what had been real, and what had he dreamed? Without help, he could not answer this question.
Feeling like a ring of iron was constricting his chest, tighter and tighter, he rose and went over to Juro's bunk. Krabat shook him by the shoulder. “Juro!” he called quietly, “Juro, wake up!”
Groaning, Juro opened his eyes. “Krabat?” He sat up quickly and rubbed his eyelids. “Krabat, what's going on?”
“Juro … did I give you the ring yesterday evening?”
Juro shook his head, confused. “No … why do you ask?”
Krabat was ice-cold. “What day is today?” he asked Juro, in a hoarse voice.
Juro looked at him as if he was doubting Krabat's sanity. “When the sun rises, it will be the day before New Year's Eve. Krabat, what is going on?!”
Krabat slumped down beside Juro's bunk.
'I only dreamed it all,' he thought. 'I went to bed two days before New Year's Eve. I dreamed of my fight with the Master, in which I overpowered him – I, in the shape of a fox; he, in the shape of a rooster. Then I did not really wake up, but instead kept dreaming. First I dreamed of the conversation with the Master, and I again refused to become his successor at the mill. Next, of giving Juro the ring of hair and asking him to take it, our agreed-upon sign, to the Kantorka. Then, of digging my own grave on the barren plain. And finally of the Kantorka at the mill, as she came to claim me and passed the test, defeated the Master, freed us journeymen, and led me out of the mill.'
It was clear to Krabat that the Master had sent him these dreams, just as he had when Krabat dreamed he'd spent entire days trying to escape, years ago. And recently, when he dreamed of his miserable life without sorcery.
Now the Master had succeeded in wresting the Kantorka's name from him. Because Krabat did not doubt that it really was Elka. Somehow, the Master must have managed to enchant her, and lure her into Krabat's dream so that she would reveal her name.
They were both doomed.
“Krabat?” Juro looked worriedly at him.
Krabat clapped both hands to his face. “It's over! He knows her name …”
Juro made a frightened sound. “But how –” he broke off.
They had both heard it: steps coming up the stairs.
Even before Krabat could scurry back to his bunk and cast the sleeping spell on himself, the door opened and the Master stuck his head in.
“Krabat!” he said. Nothing more.
But as the Master turned and went back down the steps, Krabat followed him, in his nightclothes and barefoot, through the door. Tonda had died at the foot of these stairs, he knew. On they went, past the flour room, where they'd found Michal. Finally, they entered the Master's living room.
There, the Master turned and looked at Krabat. “Elka, then.” He smiled.
Krabat didn't say a word. Everything inside him felt hollow and dead.
“You know what happened to Tonda's girl.” It wasn't a question, and required no answer.
The Master was silent for a while. Then he said, “I'll make you an offer, Krabat. Or rather, I'll repeat the offer I've already made you twice over, with one difference. You have my word that I'll spare the girl, if you agree to be my successor. I will make her forget, and she will live her life in Schwarzkollm, or elsewhere, as if she had never known you. Well, Krabat? What's it going to be?”
Krabat was trapped and he knew it. He'd never wanted to risk the Kantorka's life, and so he had no other choice.
“I … agree,” he said, with difficulty.
The Master's smile broadened. “Shake on it!” he said, and offered Krabat his left hand.
Krabat shook it. He felt like he was sealing his own doom.
The Master laughed and nodded in satisfaction. Then he turned towards the cupboard, grabbed a sealed bottle and two earthen cups. He broke the seal, poured it, and handed Krabat one of the cups.
“Let's drink to this. To Krabat, the next master of the Black Mill in the Koselbruch!”
Chapter 2: The Story of the Black Mill
Krabat stood in the middle of the Master's living room, freezing in his nightclothes and bare feet, with a cup of wine in his hand. The prospect that, in two or three years, he would be the mill master loomed over him. Conversely, Krabat had never seen the Master look happier or more relaxed.
As if in a dream, Krabat raised his cup and toasted with the Master. He drank a sip of the strong, sweet wine and felt dizzy. Then he swayed, and would have fallen, had the Master not darted forward and steadied him.
Krabat felt himself gripped under the arm and steered a few steps across the room, until his legs pushed against something. The Master motioned for him to sit down and put a blanket or the like around his shoulders.
Krabat closed his eyes and devoted all his attention to breathing. He felt sick, and everything spun around him.
When he opened his eyes again, the Master was crouched over him and examining him with a searching gaze. Krabat was sitting in the Master's armchair, with his black overcoat draped over his shoulders.
The Master nodded at him, apparently content with the results of his examination. He rose and began pacing back and forth across the room.
“I want to tell you a story, Krabat,” he said. “It's the story of this mill and my time here. On the last day of this year, when the bell tolls at midnight, I will have spent exactly twelve years as Master of the Black School. I took over at the mill a year and a half before, in the summer. All the journeymen on the mill today learned their trade from me, both the milling and the black arts. Juro is, of all of them, the one who's been here the longest. This coming Twelfth Night, it will be twelve years. Hanzo, the senior journeyman, has been here eleven. Then Kito, ten. Petar, nine. Andrusch, eight. Merten, seven – he came together with his cousin Michal, because the year before, one of the men died of smallpox, so I had to replace two. Lyschko, six. Kubo, five. Staschko, four. You, Krabat, three. Witko, two. And last of all, Lobosch, with one year at the mill.”
Krabat interrupted him. “How long was Tonda here?”
“Tonda,” the Master said, with a peculiar smile, “was already here, when I took charge of things at the mill.”
“When I came to the Koselbruch, over thirteen years ago,” the Master continued, resuming his narrative, “this was an ordinary mill. I was looking for a place where I could be a miller and the Master of a Black School. I'd been rewarded with money for serving in the war against the Ottoman Empire. The previous mill master in the Koselbruch was old, and wanted to retire in one of the nearby villages. He had only two journeymen and one apprentice. The mill didn’t provide for more than that. It was quite a ways from the surrounding villages, and neither the only mill in the area nor the best. The grinding mechanism urgently needed an overhaul, the water wheel and the mill race had to be replaced, and in the building itself, there was a lot to repair. But the remote location was excellent for my purposes.”
“One of the journeymen decided to take his leave and go traveling. The other – that is, Tonda – and the apprentice, Mato, stayed with me. We spent the first year, above all, doing repair work on the mill. I hired some itinerant craftsmen, mostly carpenters, who helped us get everything back in working order. A few of the farmers also helped, for a fee. We could mill again by my second summer here, and that winter, I concluded the pact with the Goodman and founded the Black School.”
“What exactly does this pact consist of?” Krabat asked.
“As long as the pact holds,” answered the Master, “you cannot die. But on the last day of the year, you must offer him one human life – or your own is forfeit. Come winter, he will give you a taste of mortality and day by day you age considerably. By Twelfth Night, the dozen must be complete, or else the life of everyone on the mill is forfeit. On new moon nights, the Goodman comes with a cart full of grist that must be ground into flour. If for any reason one of the journeymen cannot work on that night, you must mill in their place.”
“The pact is in effect for at least twelve years. If you ever want to permanently leave the mill, you must choose one of the journeymen to be your successor. The Goodman must approve your choice, and the journeyman himself has to agree. Depending on how far your successor has advanced in the Black Arts, you will still have to guide him at the mill for one, two, or three years. After that, you're free and can do whatever you like with your knowledge and powers. But it is not easy to find a successor that the Goodman will deem worthy. I proposed Tonda first, then Michal, and finally you, and you're the only one he entirely agreed to.”
The Master was silent for a moment.
“I know,” he continued, “that you loved Tonda dearly. I also liked him very much. I would have offered him the position of mill master, but the Goodman did not agree to it – at least, not at that time.”
The Master spoke softly and haltingly, now. It seemed difficult for him to talk about Tonda.
“If the Goodman finds a student unworthy,” the Master said, “their life is forfeit. Likewise, if the student refuses to become mill master. In Tonda's case, unlike with Michal, the Goodman at least did not declare it completely impossible. However, he asked me to ask Tonda, in advance, where he stood on the matter. Whether he could imagine himself becoming my protegé in one or two years, and taking over the mill entirely in four or five. Tonda flatly refused, although he knew it would mean his death.”
The Master fell silent again. When he spoke, he seemed to be speaking more to himself than to Krabat.
“That was in autumn … he had a long time to prepare himself for New Year's Eve. He was peaceful, even relieved. Perhaps because of his girl, or perhaps he no longer wanted to stay at the mill for other reasons. I don't know. He did not tell me.”
The Master looked at Krabat. He seemed old and gaunt, and very tired.
“I really liked him, Krabat. It … has not been easy for me.”
Krabat felt tears welling up his eyes. So Tonda had had an opportunity to save himself, and he'd turned it down. Things would have turned out so differently, if Tonda had agreed to become the Master's successor!
“If Tonda had accepted …” began Krabat, in a raw voice, “who would have died in his place? And who in place of Michal?”
The Master did not hesitate. “In both cases, Lyschko. He's caused me a lot of strife among the journeymen with his attitude. And I don't like it when someone crawls and fawns to try to ingratiate themselves with me. What he told me about the others, I could find out without him. The Master of the Black Mill always knows where all of his journeymen are, what they're doing, what they think, what they dream … for this, I need no informant.”
Krabat was aghast.
“Now, my first year as Master of the Black School … on Twelfth Night, I summoned eleven young men to the mill, with the help of sorcery. The youngest was twelve, the oldest seventeen, and I began their apprenticeship, first in milling, then also in the secret arts. Mato, the old mill master's apprentice, wanted nothing to do with it. He completed his three year apprenticeship in the miller's trade with me, and when I freed him, he left the mill as an itinerant journeyman. Tonda, however, remained and became a capable student – and my senior journeyman.”
The Master aimed a forceful look at Krabat. “You should know, Krabat, if one of the students defeats you in a sorcerer's duel, or if he escapes from the mill for longer than three days, or if someone who loves him succeeds in winning his freedom from you, then you're finished. And every year, one of them must give their life – or the master's is forfeit.”
“Every year, one …” Krabat said apprehensively, “Eleven in all those years. And this year …?”
“This year also,” confirmed the Master. “You have to kill one, and over time, on New Year's Eve you will strike down at least twelve, as heir to the Master's position at the Black Mill. You must determine who will die – or we can decide together, as I already suggested to you. If we don't choose, then it will be your life the Goodman demands tomorrow night.”
Now that he knew the Kantorka would live, Krabat was no longer indifferent to his own death. He didn't want to die. But to choose one of the others and condemn them to death …?
“You don't have to make the decision right away,” the Master said, sympathetically. “You have time until the eleventh hour of New Year's Eve. That is, until tomorrow night. But I'd advise you to make your choice as soon as possible. Believe me, putting it off does not make it easier.”
The Master hesitated. Then he added, “If you want my advice … I already told you. Choose Lyschko. And if not him, Juro.”
“Juro?!” Krabat was horrified. “Juro is my friend!” he spluttered, despite himself.
“Juro,” replied the Master emphatically, “is no one's friend. He incited Tonda to act against me, and Michal, and lately also you.”
Krabat looked at the Master in astonishment. Did he know …?
The Master laughed mockingly. “Oh, Krabat, don't insult me! I've known Juro for twelve years, and throughout, he's been wise enough to pretend to be exceptionally stupid. In this way, he got out of the mill work, which he loathed. And in all these years, he's learned more in the Black School than anyone else – even more than you, Krabat, as you well know. He is the only one, of the twelve that I began the mill with, who remains among the living, and that itself should tell you enough. And because Juro is clever, he has never risked his own neck. He always sends forward another, whose deeds might free him from the mill – and then they die in his place. Tonda was not the first.”
“I've always kept a sharp eye on Juro, and I am well aware of what you have been doing in the kitchen at night – Oh, come on, Krabat! – Juro is only alive because he has some useful skills. Among other things, he's a good cook, and in all these years, I've found no one who would have been capable of handling these mountains of housework as reliably and meticulously as Juro.”
The Master looked piercingly at Krabat. “But you, Krabat,” he said sharply, “you do not yet have the power to keep someone like Juro under your control. Even if I teach you for another two or three years – and during that time, his strength would also increase. He will seize the chance as soon as you become master. You will have to find your way into your new position, and until you have succeeded, you will be noticeably weaker than I ever was as master. Juro will know how to exploit this. He will challenge you to fight, and it is quite possible that he would defeat you. Even if he were to spare your life, if you lose a sorcerer's duel against one of the journeymen, the Goodman will come for you. Do not forget.”
Krabat swallowed. He was very aware of how strong, clever, and determined Juro really was.
“Isn't there … couldn't I just let him go, if he doesn't want to stay at the mill?”
The Master shook his head. “There are only two opportunities to let someone go, without it costing a life: before the end of the trial period, and immediately after a journeyman is freed from his apprenticeship. Any newly-minted journeyman has the right to leave and travel, but he must claim it within three days after the master has promoted him. Otherwise, it expires, and he is bound to the mill forever.”
Krabat's head was abuzz with all the new and unexpected information.
His gaze settled on one of the small windows. Outside, a gray morning was dawning. Heavy footsteps could be heard coming down the steps from the attic – Juro, always the first on his feet because he had to heat the stove and prepare breakfast.
Krabat had a heavy heart.
The Master had spent the last few minutes standing at the window, with his back to Krabat. Now he turned around. “I'm going to the kitchen now to discuss with Juro what's pending in the household. Then, I will plan the day's work with Hanzo. You can stay here if you want, and collect your thoughts, or lie down and get some sleep. My bed is in the room next door. You may use it. I'm going to excuse you from morning work with Hanzo. Don't speak to anyone of what we've said here. I'll expect you at the table at midday. There, I will announce that I've chosen you to be my successor.”
The Master nodded curtly at Krabat and then left the room.
Krabat was alone with his thoughts.
When Krabat walked into the servant's quarters at noon, all the other journeymen, the apprentice, and the Master had already gathered around the long table.
“Lyschko,” said the Master, sitting at the head of the table, “you sit at Krabat's place, and Krabat, come and sit down next to me.”
As Lyschko left his place to the left of the Master, with a sour expression, and Krabat sat there in his stead, he found himself looking across the table at the senior journeyman, who occupied the traditional place to the right of the Master. Hanzo was regarding Krabat with astonishment and quiet mistrust.
“Krabat.” The Master laid his hand on his shoulder.
“Mill workers, listen here! I have long been the master of the Black Mill – Miller, and Master of the Black School. As of tomorrow, at midnight, it will be twelve years since I founded the school, and gradually I am compelled to go traveling again and practice my arts in the courts of the powerful. I have therefore decided to cede my position to a successor, who I will, however, have to teach for a couple of years before giving him full control over the school and the mill.”
He winked at Krabat.
“You all know that over the past year, Krabat has become my best student, so I have chosen him as my successor. His dedication is unparalleled, and he will start this other apprenticeship at midnight, tomorrow. In three years, he will be the mill master. Until then, I expect you to treat him with the same respect that you offer me, even though he is still a student and will continue to learn and work side by side with you. And now, a toast to Krabat, the future Master of the Mill on the Black Water!”
The cheer from the guys felt subdued and hesitant. On their faces, Krabat could read many feelings, from disbelief and shock to outright fear and anger.
Lobosch was the only one who cheered him enthusiastically, but probably only because he had not yet grasped the significance of the thing.
Lyschko also raised his stein high, but he was pale as death and his voice quavered as he shouted “to Krabat!”
He seemed certain that he would be struck down on New Year's Eve, if Krabat's word had the slightest weight with the Master. Krabat got along well with all the journeymen, and had enmity with no one – with the exception of Lyschko.
But Krabat had not yet made his decision. He'd been pondering the Master's words for the last few hours, and now he studied the faces of his fellow journeymen.
Who should he choose?
Lobosch, cheerful little Lobosch, who was loved by all of the other journeymen, was out of the question.
And scrawny Witko was, in any case, too young for Krabat to seriously consider him.
Hanzo was a capable senior journeyman, who would not be easy to replace, and much less Staschko, with his skill in woodworking.
Andrusch would be bitterly missed. He had brightened many a dull day with his jokes. On the other hand, he was lazy. Whereas Kito, despite his proverbial bad temper, was a hard worker.
But anyway, was it right to decide on the basis of whether the guys were useful or pleasant?
Krabat couldn't condemn anyone to his death simply because he responded to life on the mill with a bad mood! And if he went by usefulness … wouldn't he have to, on that account, choose the fragile Witko?
What about Petar, the spoon-carver? He too could work energetically. The same applied to taciturn Kubo, although no one really knew his character or what was going through his head. Was Kubo perhaps more dangerous than he seemed – like Juro?
Krabat didn't want to think about Juro. Especially not about what the Master had said about his friend.
Was the Master at all trustworthy, in this matter? He'd killed his best friend. Perhaps he wanted Krabat to do the same with Juro? After all, he'd once compelled them to re-enact the story with the eagle. That could have turned out very badly, had Juro not been such a shrewd and skillful actor.
But what if the Master was right, and Juro was manipulating Krabat? Was Juro really his friend, or merely using him? Was Juro maybe even somewhat responsible for Tonda and Michal's deaths? Would Tonda have been the Master's protegé, if Juro had not interfered and caused him to go against the miller?
Krabat felt that someone was looking at him. As he looked up, he met Lyschko's gaze. Lyschko could tell he'd been well and truly caught, and swiftly looked aside, but again Krabat read fear in his eyes.
Lyschko had died a thousand deaths already.
Then Krabat's eyes wandered over to one who sat quietly at the table, inconspicuous as a gray shadow. Merten.
Should he choose Merten, who had not wanted to live since the death of his cousin Michal? Merten, who'd even tried to take his own life, once he realized that escaping from the mill was impossible?
But Merten had just begun to pull himself together. He spoke again. He worked alongside the others, although he worked slower, needed more breaks, and would probably always have a crooked neck and a broken voice. Could he condemn Merten to death, when he was finally taking part in life at the mill again?
Krabat's predicament was unsolvable.
And yet …
Krabat's eyes wandered repeatedly to Lyschko, and Lyschko kept looking anxiously at Krabat when he believed he was unobserved.
The Master stood up from the lunch table as it became apparent that there wasn't exactly going to be celebrating, and sent the guys back to work.
However, he held Krabat back.
“Krabat, as of today, you will move from the attic to a room of your own, which is next to mine. Come, I'll show it to you.”
The Master led him to a door Krabat had never noticed before. Maybe it had not been there. When the Master encouraged him with a push, Krabat saw that it opened into a small room, with one little window facing East. The room contained a bed, a table with one candle, a stool, a washstand, and a locker. In the wall there was a second door that, according to its position, had to lead into the Master's bedroom. That thought did not sit well with Krabat. The wall also consisted of thin boards, which would admit every word and ray of light.
The Master pushed Krabat into the room. Then he also entered, and closed the door behind him.
“I see,” the Master said, “that this choice you have to make is proving difficult. Let me help you.”
“Your thinking, Krabat,” he continued, “was already quite right. You should act in accordance with what the mill needs. The way the journeymen are arranged right now, they work well together. Hanzo is indeed a capable fellow and a responsible senior journeyman. Likewise, we don't want to be missing Staschko, with his carpentry skills. There's always a lot of wood on the mill and someone like him is in constant demand. Petar's carving is also thoroughly useful, and moreover, he is a good mill worker. Kubo keeps his mouth shut and never makes trouble, and he works hard. These four, we can't and don't want to do without.”
He paused. Krabat waited tensely.
“Now it gets harder,” the Master went on. “Andrusch may be funny, but he's lazy. From time to time, someone has to tan his hide to get him to work in earnest. Hanzo is fully able to do this. Kito's bad mood is contagious, despite the fact that he's a hard worker. It's not good for the efforts of the other fellows. But Hanzo also has that under control.”
“Lobosch and Witko … you're right, they're very young and it would be a pity to have to sacrifice either of them. Nevertheless, I don't know if Witko will ever have what it takes to be a mill worker. And Lobosch … I don't like his agile, impertinent mouth. And he has, like Lyschko, eyes and ears everywhere, including in things that don't concern him. I know that you like him, and that he has the other journeymen eating out of his hand, but we have to watch Lobosch with a sharp eye. For Witko, I'd like to wait a year or two and see what he makes of himself, before we make a final judgment.”
The Master's calculating nature, and the way he listed the merits and weaknesses of the journeymen, made Krabat ill at ease.
“Hanzo, Staschko, Petar, Kubo, Andrusch, Kito, Lobosch, Witko … who's left? Merten, Lyschko, and Juro. Since, despite my warning regarding Juro, you aren't reconciled to it, and since he has known how to make himself indispensable in the kitchen and the house, we'll let him be for now. The decision concerning him may be significantly easier next year.”
“This leaves Lyschko and Merten. To what I already said about Lyschko, there's nothing to add, except this: Lyschko will never be like the others. He cannot be content at the mill and therefore will always stir up trouble – unless you bind him to yourself, Krabat, and keep him on a short leash. Otherwise he will be a constant annoyance to you, as well as to his fellow men. Lyschko needs a special kind of guidance. If you can't or don't want to attempt that, then it would be better for everyone, including him, if your choice fell on him this year.”
“Merten is truly doing much better. It may be that he recovers to such an extent that he can be wholeheartedly involved in things at the mill again, just as before Michal's death, and that he will forget his grief with time. His decision to end his life was hasty. One could even say, premature. Still, he might be the choice that would give you the fewest pangs of conscience.”
The Master concluded by saying “I think you should speak with both of them. I'll send Lyschko to you first and then Merten.”
Krabat stared at him in horror. “Should I ask them about whether I should choose them?! Whether they … whether they want to die?”
The Master shrugged his shoulders. “You can ask Merten. He won't take it badly, and his answer might make your decision easier. Lyschko … well, Lyschko's behavior may also simplify your choice. And he won't conceal his fears, regardless. Possibly, today you will see Lyschko for the first time as he really is.”
“Get your things from the attic and come back here. I'll send both of them to you, one after the other, with the first in about an hour. Until then, consider well what you want to say. I will leave you alone with them.”
Chapter 4: Lyschko and Merten
Krabat dreaded the conversations with Lyschko and Merten. Someone had to speak with them, that much was clear, but why did it have to be him? Especially Lyschko …
Krabat realized, with cold horror, that in his heart he'd already decided.
He liked Merten, he could empathize with his grief over Michal when he thought of Tonda. And the other journeymen liked Merten just as well.
Lyschko, on the other hand, he did not like. No one liked Lyschko, not even the Master – and that, although Lyschko seemed to live only to please the Master.
He'd scarcely finished this thought when he heard a subdued knock on the door.
“Come in,” said Krabat, with a feeling as if he had a millstone in his stomach.
Lyschko walked in and closed the door behind him. When he turned towards Krabat, his face was as white as it was the first time Krabat had ever seen him and the other journeymen, and then they'd been thoroughly covered with flour dust, pale as ghosts in the night. His lips were pressed together in a thin line. His eyes were reddened, possibly from dust in the grinding room. Or had he been crying? Krabat did not want to imagine Lyschko crying. Especially not now, after he had made his choice.
Lyschko, it seemed, had read everything crucial in his eyes. Krabat watched him as he swallowed and tried to speak. But Lyschko couldn't force a single word past his lips. Instead, he pressed his hand to his mouth, as if he was going to be sick. The other curled into a fist, opened, and then closed again.
“Lyschko,” Krabat started to say, helplessly, “I … I have to choose one, together with the Master. And the Master … he chose you. I …”
Lyschko hurtled towards him with a wild sound, half scream and half sob, and tried to punch Krabat. But he was apparently so upset that he could not aim properly, and a blow that Krabat had only meant in self-defense connected solidly enough that Lyschko lost his balance and landed at Krabat's feet. There he remained, sitting and sobbing, with his face hidden in his hands. It was such a wretched sight that Krabat didn't know whether to pity him or be disgusted.
“Lyschko,” he repeated, gently. He leaned down towards his fellow journeyman, despite not having the slightest idea of what he should say or do.
Lyschko was trembling like an aspen leaf.
Krabat straightened and took the blanket from his bed, which he then laid over Lyschko's shoulders. Nothing better occurred to him.
“Krabat …” Lyschko finally managed to rasp. He lowered his hands and looked up at Krabat. His face was tear-streaked. “What did I do wrong? Can you at least tell me that? I … I have always done everything to please him, all I could, even things that none of the others would have done for him … and now … now he wants …” he pressed his hand back against his mouth.
Krabat frowned. “If you mean your snooping …”
Lyschko shook his head and snorted, as if what the rest of the journeymen had always found the most disturbing about him was not even worth mentioning. “Not at all. I know he doesn't need me to find anything out about one of you. No. But … you know … when he couldn't get away from the mill, or when he'd had a bad day. When he … when he was lonely … when he missed Jirko …”
Krabat had a suspicion.
The guys were always tired after their daily work, but they were also young, and there weren't any women. And anyway, everyone was aware of the others, as close as they were in the attic and in general … they exchanged hand jobs, and some of the journeymen were probably doing more than that. Krabat had long supposed that between Michal and Merten there used to be more than just friendship and family ties, and in the last months Lobosch had spent a lot of time with Staschko, away from the others.
But all these things happened secretly and furtively, and when someone saw or heard something, it was usually dismissed with a bawdy joke.
Lyschko, however, kept to himself. Except with the Master, who had, on several occasions …
So that's what it was, with Lyschko.
And instead of thanks for his services, now Lyschko had to live with the Master's contempt. A contempt that went so far that he'd urged Krabat to choose Lyschko as this year's sacrifice.
Krabat really didn't know anymore what he should think. Or do.
“Come,” he finally said to Lyschko, and held out his hand towards him. “Get up, and sit on the stool or the bed, but don't stay crouched on the floor. You don't belong there.”
Lyschko looked at him for a long moment. Krabat felt quite strange. Then Lyschko nodded slowly, took Krabat's hand and let him pull him to his feet. He went over to the bed, and before Krabat's misgivings could take shape, Lyschko had already started to take his clothes off.
Krabat shook his head in disbelief. He hoped very much, that this was not the “real Lyschko” that the Master had told him of, or at least that this was not all there was to him.
He walked over to the bed and took Lyschko's hands to stop him.
“Not for me,” he said emphatically.
The subsequent tears of despair were probably inevitable. Krabat used the sleeve of Lyschko's jacket, which he'd already laid on the bed, to wipe them from his face.
“Stop it, that does not suit you …” he said softly.
Lyschko laughed and sobbed at the same time. “I'm not getting out of this, am I?” he asked, in a voice devoid of hope. “I'd better go to the shed and get a pickaxe and a shovel …”
Krabat thought of how he had dug his own grave on the barren plain in his dream. He felt cold and clammy.
“Not yet,” he said. His voice was as hoarse as if he'd been working all day in the flour room. “First I have to talk to Merten.”
Lyschko’s laughter sounded incredulous. “I’d only feel slightly better if you kill Merten this year and postpone my foreseeable death until the next one.”
Krabat couldn’t understand Lyschko. “Why are you so sure that I want to kill you?”
Because in fact, Krabat thought, it was the Master that Lyschko had reason to fear. Not him.
Lyschko laughed again. This time it sounded bitter. “In three years, you will be the mill master. I know you like the other journeymen. They are your friends. You don’t like me. I am not your friend. You won’t choose from the others. And even if you choose Merten this time, you will only do it if he tells you that he still wants to die. But after Merten there will be no other volunteers, and then I will be the only one that you can bring yourself to kill. Let’s not mince words about this, Krabat: you can’t stand me, and because what I have to offer does not hold interest to you, I will be next.”
Lyschko stood up and grabbed his jacket. “I’m going to get a pickaxe and a shovel. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be on the barren plain, digging my grave.”
Krabat had not yet recovered from his talk with Lyschko when there was another knock on his door. Merten entered.
“Yes,” was all Merten said.
Confused, Krabat stared at him.
Merten just nodded once in acknowledgment before turning around and starting to leave. Krabat quickly caught his arm.
Merten turned and looked him in the eye. “I’m still looking for a way out of the mill, Krabat. If you open the door for me, I'll be grateful to you.”
He gave Krabat’s shoulder a quick squeeze, and then left the room with finality. Krabat heard his footsteps in the hallway and then the sound of the house door swinging shut. For a moment, he just stood there, frozen. Then he wrenched the door open and went after Merten.
Krabat paused in front of the shed. Voices could be heard from inside. He recognized Lyschko, although he sounded so agitated that Krabat could not understand a word he said. Then he heard Merten say “Stop that!” and “give it to me!”
A brief scuffle followed.
When Krabat peered carefully into the shed, he saw Merten. He held a shovel in one hand. His free arm was wrapped reassuringly around Lyschko, who was shaking. A pickaxe was lying on the ground. Merten whispered something in Lyschko's ear that Krabat could not make out. He stroked his hair, pushed him away a bit, and kissed his forehead.
Lyschko broke down altogether, sobbing, and collapsed on a chest where they kept the old flour sacks.
Merten hefted the pickaxe, walked out of the shed, and nodded to Krabat in passing as he made his way to the barren plain.
In the night before New Year’s Eve, sleep had entirely eluded Krabat. After the evening meal, the Master had called him into the Black Chamber.
“Not Lyschko,” Krabat had told him. “Merten.”
The Master had only nodded and put something down in the Koraktor. Then he’d sent Krabat to bed.
The others had also disappeared to the attic soon after eating.
During the night, it was very quiet in the mill. Only the soft ripple of the brook under the ice was audible, the murmur of the wind, the groaning of the wood from which the mill was built, and now and then, the cry of a shriek owl.
The next morning, Krabat got up just like the others in the dark, in nearly complete silence. He ate buckwheat porridge from a serving dish he shared with Hanzo, Andrusch, and Lyschko, and went to work alongside the other journeymen.
The collective mood was depressed, as it always was around New Year’s Eve, but not as short-tempered or violent as in previous years. Everyone was aware that it was going to be Merten, and in the meantime, even Lyschko had come to terms with this.
The Master had not absented himself from the mill this time. After lunch, he called Merten to his room. Merten remained there for nearly an hour before rejoining the other journeymen for mill work. He was as quiet as ever, but he seemed more composed than before their conversation.
Throughout the day, Krabat tried repeatedly to talk to Juro. But his friend shook his head in silence whenever he made his way into the kitchen or stopped by on some pretext where Juro was working. He also avoided Krabat’s eyes. The Master must have had words with him, and made it clear that he was perfectly aware of the game his oldest journeyman had been playing. For the first time since Krabat had known Juro, he was showing unmistakable signs of fear. When Krabat persisted in trying to get him to open up, the Master appeared in the kitchen and sent Krabat back to work in the grinding room.
Dinner also proceeded in silence. It was broken only once. When Juro brought the bread, he touched Krabat's arm.
“Thank you,” he said, quietly.
Now Krabat was absolutely certain that the Master had spoken to Juro, and told him that Krabat was the one who had objected to their killing him this year.
After dinner, everyone hurried to bed, as was the custom on New Year’s Eve. The journeymen pulled their covers up especially high, and hoped this night of horror would be over as quickly as possible.
Krabat hung back for Merten, who seemed to want to be the last one to make his way to the attic.
Without a word, they shook hands. Merten saw that Krabat looked tormented, and pulled Krabat towards him, as he’d done the day before with Lyschko.
“It’s alright this way,” he whispered in Krabat’s ear. “Don’t grieve for me, Krabat.”
He also stroked Krabat’s hair, and kissed him on the forehead. Then he turned away, climbed the stairs to the attic and disappeared through the door.
Krabat stood there in the corridor. He could hear Juro in the kitchen. When he realized that Juro was probably sewing Merten’s shroud, or preparing for his departure in other ways, tears came to his eyes.
Then he thought of the Kantorka. Had the Master already made her forget him? He must have, because otherwise, she would be coming to the mill soon, or even be here already.
Thinking about her led him to Tonda, and then to Michal. His heart grew heavier.
At once, the Master was standing behind him. He laid his hand on Krabat’s shoulder.
“Accompany me to my room, Krabat,” the Master said gently, and Krabat followed him.
There they sat and waited for Death, hour after hour. The Master was old and weak, as he always was at the close of a year. He pushed a cup of wine towards Krabat, with trembling hands. Krabat hardly drank from it.
After a while, they heard Juro walk down the corridor and climb the stairs to the attic. The door thudded closed.
Hours passed before it opened again. Hesitant, bare-footed footsteps were heard on the stairs. Then the noise stopped, and there was a sound of wood creaking. Merten must have sat down on the steps, like all the others, to wait.
“I … should I go to him?” whispered Krabat, tentatively.
The Master shook his head. He looked very tired. “We are born alone, and we die alone,” he replied, in a muted voice. “Leave him in peace, Krabat.”
It took a long time for Merten to get up and walk, with uncertain steps, across the corridor and into the servant’s quarters. Then there was a dull blow, a stifled groan, and then complete silence.
Krabat looked over at the Master, who was now decades younger.
Then he felt something invisible seize him, pass through him, and flow out of him again. The air sang, the mill shuddered. And then, once more, all was quiet.
Krabat could feel the wind sweeping across the roof of the mill now, the icy water stroking its flank, its posts and beams curving under the weight of the years …
He was also aware of the journeymen. Every one of them had been woken up by the blow and the choked sound poor Merten had made in the silence. They were relieved and ashamed of their relief, in mourning and yet glad to have escaped once more.
And there was the Master, fused with the mill as moss and lichen with an old tree, with his sighted and his blind eye, which was not truly blind, but perceived things that would otherwise be hidden.
The Master nodded at him in all seriousness. “Now you see, Krabat, the mill and everything: all this will soon be yours.”
‘Yes,’ thought Krabat. ‘And everything has a price …’