The Green Side
Rudolf clung on to the hatch coaming as his command vehicle roared and bucked its way across the rough terrain over which the mercenaries - and possibly Josseran - had fled. The IFVs were travelling in a ragged line down through the trees to the river Vwyszh. Suddenly bullets pinged and ricocheted off the armour protecting the king. 'Incoming!' yelled the sergeant. The turret rotated towards the source of the shots and let off several rounds of cannon fire. Heavy machine guns chattered from the other IFVs.
Alpha company halted to assess the extent of the resistance. A sudden concussion rocked Rudi's vehicle as enemy RPGs targeted a nearby Warrior. His helmet radio fed him a stream of information. He directed fire at the point of origin, then ordered a detachment round to outflank it. By the time the IFVs had reformed their line, however, the mercenaries were gone.
The king's Warrior breasted the stream of the Vwyszh below the bridge. All of the other vehicles were doing the same, avoiding the bridge which Rudi suspected had been booby trapped. He left a guard to keep others from crossing it until explosives experts could be detailed to check it out.
Heavy fire opened up on the IFVs as they began to climb the hill towards the monastery. It was a slow process locating nests of resistance and clearing them before moving on. He had no doubt there was a delaying action going on, but for the safety of his men he could not just charge forward. Even so, he had lost three Warriors to mechanical difficulties and enemy fire before his command came in sight of the monastery.
Taking advantage of stone boundary walls and dips in the ground, Alpha company paused to analyse the strength of the latest enemy position. 'That you, Ed?' The king had raised the major on his helmet radio.
'Sir. Epsilon company has dismounted and dug in along the scarp above the monastery. We're taking a lot of pressure but are standing off the mercenaries. Here's the problem. They had clearly hoped to get past us and into the forest to the east of Green Side. The bad news is that, because we've got them bottled up, they've started fortifying the monastery for a siege and are holding the occupants hostage. You can't make a direct assault without endangering the monks' lives.'
'Understood, Ed. That rules out air support too. Any news on the location of Josseran's secret weapon?'
'I have a feeling it's to the rear of my position. That's the way the mercenaries were heading before our flanking move cut them off.
'Sir, now that we have them temporarily contained, you might wish to transfer your command post to the Pave Hawk. I suggest taking it up to get the lie of the land. You can't do much stuck with Alpha company.'
'Battlefield promotion, Ed. And let's not do it by half measures. We'll skip lieutenant-colonel and go the whole hog. Your record as battalion commander is superb. You've been long overdue for this.'
'Thank you, sire! Henry will be so pleased.'
'Don't mention it. Captain Wincowicz will mop up at the Red Zone and the village. You assume direct command of Alpha and the siege of the monastery. Get that chopper down here soon.'
A surge of cheers and congratulations came out of the king's receiver as the Fusiliers learned of their commander's field promotion. Rudi smiled. He wanted the troops' morale to be at a peak during the next few trying hours, in which his kingdom's very existence might be at stake.
Prema and his fellow monks sat meditating in the dormitory room. They were praying to the Great Ones for Vedayah and Chavindar. As he swayed and recited his prayers, Prema's ears pricked to hear a pop-pop of distant gunfire from outside. The monks lost concentration and stood. The burst of fire lasted for several minutes before dying away.
There was shouting in the monastery's entry hall. Recic, wearing full battledress and with a machine gun slung around his neck, sprinted past the open door rallying his men. He and several others ran on to the terrace overlooking the lake at the rear of the house, where they took up positions along the stone balustrade that separated it from the lawns.
After a moment of silence, the windows rattled to the concussion of distant explosions which had quite a different order of noise and fury. They seemed to come from out of sight beyond the front of the house.
'Look, eminence!' Prema pointed towards the lake where the black whirring shapes of two helicopters were settling behind the trees. 'Those are soldiers down there!'
The monks had congregated around the windows. Hearing their exclamations, the guard came in and shouted at them to get back into a corner near the altar and not move. Prema noticed the man's nervousness, how his attention was continually straying towards the windows.
For a while there was quiet, but after half an hour the noise of gunfire again came from the front of the house. As it began getting closer, the monks looked at each other. Eventually there was a crescendo of detonations amidst the chattering of machine guns and rifle fire, following which quiet briefly returned.
Then the hall outside was full of voices and movement. Ignoring the monks, Recic stalked back into the dormitory hall. With him was a tall, striking, hooknosed man in camouflage gear, a machine gun in hand. They were talking in Rothenian.
Recic was saying, '... you can see their positions from here. Their troops are along the ridge above us. They've blocked our way south past the lake.'
The newcomer growled, 'And they're hard on our heels behind us. Is there no way through?'
'We're surrounded. They were too close for comfort. Did someone inform on us?'
'If ever I find out, he'll wish he was dead long before death takes him. So we're besieged in this house. But we have some advantages. These monks will make good bargaining chips.'
'There's Mrs Marquesa upstairs.'
'Ah yes, the king's mother-in-law. Better and better. Is she being watched?'
'She's in there with two monks. They're very quiet.'
'Then we won't disturb her... meditations.' The man gave a harsh laugh and swept the monks with a contemptuous glance.
Prema flushed. He had to admit the Grand Abbot's weakness had opened the community to ridicule.
'For the moment it's a standoff. But the fools don't realise we hold all the cards. In an hour or two they'll be falling over themselves to provide aircraft to fly us out of their country. Establish a perimeter and find a way of getting through this communications blackout. They'll want to talk soon enough.'
Prema consoled himself that at least Vedayah and Justin were safe.
'Colonel, eh? Every bugger I know is being promoted.'
'Henry will go all silly on me. I expect he'll host another of his themed parties at the White Tree. I daren't tell you what he got up to when I was made a major. "Major" is a make of dildo they sell at Erotic Dream City.'
Justin guffawed. 'What we do now, Colonel Ed?'
Ed Cornish took off his helmet and wiped his face. 'We have them holed up in the monastery, so far so good. But now it's a siege, with the monks as hostages.'
'... and Mrs Marquesa.'
'That should amuse Rudi, poor bloke.'
'There goes the chopper to pick him up now.'
'So what are we doing here?' Justin looked round at the Rothenian soldiers arrayed in an arc along the crest of the ridge, their weapons trained on the monastery and its grounds below.
'We're waiting, Justy. Er... I wish I had a change of clothes for you. A flak jacket and a crimson toga are not exactly up to your usual style, babe. It's a good thing you decided to grab a pair of Mrs Marquesa's Tevas before you escaped from the monastery.'
'Yeah, lucky the cow's got such big feet.'
'Anyway, you'd best head on down the hill. Nathan, little Damien and his friend are with that APC parked just by the forest. They'll be happy to see you. I've radioed to let them know you're on your way. Nothing much is going to happen in this area for a bit.'
'I'll be off, then.' Justin trotted away towards the trees below, which were further than he thought. It was nearly ten minutes before he approached the vehicle, to be hailed by a wave from the driver.
Justin had little Rothenian. After exchanging greetings he found himself at a loss when the soldier let loose a volley of words and pointed urgently into the woods. Justin was clearly supposed to go in that direction. But why?
Shrugging, he plunged into the trees. He heard voices ahead, one of which was unmistakably his lover's. 'Nate!' he called out.
'Justy! Oh thank the Lord!' Nathan came running down the path, only to stop dead when he got close.
'Justy?' He stood astonished at the vision in front of him. 'What did they do to you? Where's your hair? What's happened to your sense of colour co-ordination?'
'Oh... er, long story. Doan' I get a hug, babes?'
Shaking his head, Nathan impulsively grabbed the smaller man, hugging him tight. 'I was out of my mind with worry, Chavvy babe. It's so good to have you back. But...?'
'Where's our kid?' Justin interrupted, breaking free.
'Oh. He's back there on the other side of a clearing. I was just cleaning up Reggie after he had a crap. They'll be amused to see the state you're in. What happened, for God's sake?'
'I wuz kidnapped by Josseran... well, yer knew that. Anyway, the kidnappers' plot had been sussed by two monks of the New Vedanta Movement - Chris and Malcolm, or Vedayah and Prema as they likes to be called. So these two amazing blokes fooled Josseran into handing me over to them. Then they disguised me as a monk and hid me in their monastery.'
'This would be the big house over the hill? The one Mrs Marquesa stays at?'
'Yeah. It wuz the cow who wuz behind it all. She wanted me dead.'
'Bloody hell, Justy! You do bring out the best in people.'
'Where's Daimey? Iss time I gave him a laugh.'
The two men found Reggie zipping up his battledress trousers. 'Better, sweetheart?' Nathan asked.
'Thanks, Nate, yeah. Where's Daimey? Er... and who's the Roman centurion?'
Justin rolled his eyes. 'This is getting repetitive.'
'Oh hi, Mr Peacher-White, sir! I didn't recognise you like that.'
Justin and Nathan each took one of Reggie's hands and went across the clearing.
Nathan pulled up aghast. 'Oh no! I left him right here, it can't have been more than ten minutes ago. He was riveted by a white hart we saw. Oh, don't say he's hared off after it!'
'Which way would he have gone, Nate?'
'Absolutely no idea. Damn!'
Damien at last came level with the stag. Seemingly inclined to be tame, it allowed the boy to pat its neck while it nuzzled his hand. Then it snuffled over his face, making him giggle as a blast of hot deer breath blew down his neck. The two of them stood in the soft, green light of the woods, at the edge of a deep ditch surrounding the castle.
'Yer gonna show me anyfink else?' Damien murmured, not expecting an answer. The stag turned away from him and began cropping at the grass.
He suddenly noticed a small, dark opening in the curtain wall. He picked his way down the steep bank to clamber up the other side. The fortifications loomed above him, a great tower to each side. Despite the ivy and creepers that were beginning to colonise the walls, the castle was in a remarkably sound state overall.
The postern entry had no door, though the rusty remains of hinges and a lock remained. Damien quietly crept in and found himself on a series of shallow steps leading upwards through a roofless lane. He paused breathless as several wood pigeons flew away before him with a clatter of wings loud in the passageway.
He continued his ascent till he came to a gap between the walls. Beyond was a broad, flat lawn, as level as if it had been tended and rolled. Battlements and towers rose on all sides. Opposite him now, raised on a mound, was the great keep, a huge octagonal tower crested with turrets and finials.
In other circumstances, Damien would have been leaping about looking for staircases to climb and dungeons to explore, but something was restraining his natural high spirits that day. Maybe it was the worry about his father that was preying on his mind, or maybe it was something else. Although he didn't have the full vocabulary to explain to himself why he felt so cautious, the word he seized on was 'spooky'.
As Damien hesitated, he became aware that the castle was not empty. Three Land Rovers were parked near the gatehouse. Barrels, tools and scaffolding poles were stacked close to the vehicles. There was no sign of human life, yet there had to be people around. Somehow he did not feel that he wanted to run over and introduce himself to them.
Damien's younger years had been tragic and deprived. He had not been the sort of boy whose mother read him fairy tales and told him bedtime stories. Nonetheless, he knew castles had bad reputations in history as places which housed robber barons, wicked witches and ogres. He rather thought this might have been that sort of castle.
He wondered at last whether he should make his way back to Nathan and Reggie. While he was fairly sure he knew the way, something made him stay on in the dark of the lane.
Muffled voices drew his attention to the keep. Two men with rifles slung over their shoulders were descending the steps from the upper door. They wore black leather jackets and hadn't shaved recently. Their voices echoed across the base court, but Damien couldn't understand them. He knew they were not speaking Rothenian, which he could usually get the gist of.
They moved to the gatehouse and took up positions. Damien again wondered whether he should go. He stood irresolute, looking back the way he had come. Then, noticing a side door he had not explored, he trotted back down and peered through. There was a series of rooms visible, one opening into another and bearing leftwards with the curve of the castle precinct.
Damien made his decision. He would first explore this range of rooms. It veered round towards the keep, so maybe he could get closer to whatever was going on here while staying out of sight.
The boy scuffled along through the dusty floors of the ancient range. Every now and again he passed one of the interior windows, through which he could check on the guards. When he reached the fifth room, he found himself looking directly across into the castle's main gatehouse, where he saw the two men enjoying a smoke.
The fifth and last room was different from the ones before it. To his right, jutting out of the castle's curtain wall, was an apsidal end containing a raised dais and a stone table. Damien recognised a chapel when he was in one. His father was a cradle Catholic and his granddads had made a practice of dragging him unwilling to church at Christmas and Easter. 'Gotta do it babe,' Justin had explained. 'Me mum would have expected it.' There had even been a risky experiment with sending Damien to a Sunday school, but in the wake of the unfortunate consequences no one ever suggested it again.
However, the nature of the boy's inquisitive mind was such that he had picked up rather more about religious symbolism and ideas than anyone would have guessed. Anyone, that is, apart from Gus Underwood, who was very much Damien's private intellectual sounding board. The two of them had long conversations about such subjects, to a depth that would have surprised even Nathan and Justin.
The chapel was in very good order. Stained glass still occupied many of the Gothic lights of the windows. The floor was of encaustic tiles and seemed to have been recently swept clean. The altar and its reredos were rich in magnificent carving.
Immediately behind the table was a tall statue of a female saint dressed as a nun. She was smiling down at a devotional book she held, while two small children clung to the skirts of her robe. Damien peered hard at her face, which he thought looked oddly familiar, though he couldn't work out how that could be.
Transferring his attention to the walls on either side of the altar, he noticed they were bright with medieval paintings. He was instantly riveted by a series of four panels on the north side that appeared to be telling a story. The saintly nun from behind the altar was the central figure. In the first panel, she sat in a room, holding on her knee a child whom she seemed to be instructing in something. Damien's eyes leapt to the next panel, where a great city was under siege by an army. He craned his neck to see more. Armoured soldiers in brigandines and plate were assaulting a gate. Curiously, their dark, unshaven appearance was very reminiscent of the gangsters outside in the castle.
It was the third panel which caused Damien to gasp. The same boy who had been sitting on the saint's knee was standing in a wood carpeted with bright flowers. His hand was reaching up to pat the snout of a white hart, which wore a gold coronet and chain around its neck.
He looked closer. 'Fookin' Nora!' The boy in the wall painting was dark-haired and pretty, and there was no doubt in Damien's mind about why this particular face looked familiar, for it was the one he saw in mirrors. He again inspected the first panel, where the boy on the saint's knee had the same features.
Damien raced back to the fourth panel. There the saint was indicating a Gothic door to the boy, who held a large gold key in his hand. A small red dragon lay curled around the threshold, directing one yellow eye at the saint and the boy. Depicted on the painted door was a symbol that Damien could not make much sense of, although he thought it might have been a covered cup with three great rays of light blazing out from it in a 'Y' shape.
He whipped around to see if the story continued on the south wall of the chapel. Nothing there looked even vaguely connected with the scenes opposite. It was merely a gallery of military saints whose names he read from scrolls beneath them: George, Michael, Maurice and Martin.
'Spooky,' the boy muttered to himself. As he did so, he became aware of quite how still the chapel was. The distant sound of the guards chatting at the gate and the twittering of birds alike were suppressed.
All of a sudden the climbing sun broke through the woodland cover round the castle and flooded the chapel with light. Damien was momentarily dazzled with colour and brilliance. Then a movement to his left and a slight chink of metal against stone caused him to start. He blinked at the statue behind the altar. Now hanging from the saint's stone hand, swinging gently by a chain, was a heavy gold key.
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