The Green Side
Prema looked up, disturbed from his worries about Vedayah by the return of Hooknose and Recic, who peered out of the French windows which opened on to the monastery's back terrace. While seeming to inspect the positions their men had taken along the rear of the house, they conversed in Rothenian, which Prema could follow.
Hooknose chuckled. 'It's time to deal, Recic. They think this is a simple hostage drama, but what they need to know is that all Rothenia is the hostage for their good behaviour. Will they be surprised! Since they've jammed our communications, the first step is to get them to restore them.'
'How do we do that, boss?'
'You'll do it. Get a white flag and head down to the lake waving it. Their soldiers are dug in on the hill opposite. Someone'll come and talk to you.'
Recic did not look too happy at the prospect. 'What do I say?'
'Tell them who our hostages are. That'll give them pause for thought. The Marquesa bitch is the king's mother-in-law after all! But they need to know we have a means of laying waste a whole corner of their shithole of a country if they don't give us the way to leave it.'
'What if they don't believe me?'
'I have that covered. I knew it might come to this.' From a pocket of his battledress jacket Hooknose produced a plastic folder which he handed to Recic. 'These are photographs and files which'll convince the bastards that we're not bluffing.'
Recic opened the folder and scanned the contents, pursing his lips. 'It's technical stuff. What if they don't have the skills to realise what you've set up here?'
'Give them an hour to think about it. But no more. They have to know that the timer is automated and primed. Their blackout can't stop the detonation. A dirty bomb will explode in the immediate vicinity of Ranstadt in just four hours unless they meet our terms.'
'A flight of five long-range Chinooks to take us and our loot across Eastern Europe to Belarus. The government there is on side, and will give us safe conduct through to Russia with our cargo of NATO's most advanced technology.'
An appalled Prema fought to keep his face impassive, an effort helped in no small part by his practice in meditation. What could be done? If only Vedayah were there, he would have ideas. But he was gone. Prema must be patient and wait.
He caught Dravadam's glance and realised he too had overheard the mercenaries. Prema saw the big man's eyes had kindled with anger, which gave him a new source of worry. What if the some of his friends were hot-headed enough to try to intervene physically, despite their vows of non-violence?
Colonel Ed Cornish looked pensively at the monastery below from his vantage point on the brow of the hill.
Captain-Lieutenant Jacek, commander of Epsilon company, tugged at his sleeve. 'Sir, there's movement.'
'About time,' Ed muttered.
A figure in green waving a white flag was descending the slope of the lawn at the back of the house, heading towards the lakeside.
Ed called up to the king's command chopper, circling high above the valley. 'Do you see him, sir?'
'Yes, Ed. I imagine we're about to learn the worst. Go talk to the creature. Keep your mic open so I can listen in.'
Ed took off his helmet and handed his machine gun to Jacek. He clipped a transmitter to his shoulder webbing, checked his pistol and made his way down the hill, his men wishing him good luck as he passed them.
It took Ed a good ten minutes before he got to the vicinity of Josseran's emissary - a Rothenian not an Albanian, or so Ed guessed - wearing battledress camouflage trousers and a German army-surplus jacket. When they both reached the lakeside, the man stopped, put down his flag of truce and lit a cigarette. Ed suspected he was trying to look cooler than he felt.
The gangster puffed out smoke. 'Who're you? Have you got authority to negotiate?'
'Colonel Cornish of the Guard Fusiliers of Modenehem, and yes, I can listen to your surrender terms.'
The man gave a harsh chuckle. 'In your dreams, soldier boy. Do you know who we've got up in the house?'
'Harmless and innocent monks?'
'The name Marquesa mean anything to you?'
Ed's face took on a look of concern before he could stop it.
Recic's smile broadened. 'Yeah, that's right, the king's mother-in-law. With her there, I don't think you military types are going to come in all guns blazing, are you?'
Ed shrugged. 'What's the price for their release?'
'It's not money we want. It's free passage out of here wherever we want to go.'
'Not a chance.'
'I thought you'd say that. So take a look at this.' He handed Ed the plastic folder.
'What is it?'
'It's the reason why you're going to listen carefully to our terms for your surrender.'
Ed gave the man a slow sidelong glance as he opened the folder. He knew what he would find in it, but even so the depth of planning it revealed behind Josseran's ambitious blackmail took him aback. It was all he could do to keep a composed face.
He returned the documents to their folder and gave the gangster a cold look. 'There is one major defect in your plan.'
'If that bomb goes off and you're still in the monastery, you'll suffer the consequences as much as everybody else in northern Husbrau.'
The man's smile had an edge of triumph about it. 'But you can't let that happen, can you. Our fate against millions of innocent civilians? The clock is literally ticking and the countdown can only be stopped if you restore our communications. You have just an hour to make your decision.' He picked up his makeshift flag of truce and headed back up the hill.
Ed waited for him to get out of earshot, then said, 'Did you hear all that, sir?'
His ear bud hissed and Rudi's voice emerged. 'So Ellie is a hostage too. Well that's rich. Unfortunately, it seems Josseran's thought things through. We're on the horns of a dilemma here and no mistake. Damnation! We have no idea where their bomb is other than it's southeast of here, and even if we knew, it's locked in a detonation sequence.'
'What's the decision, sir?'
There was silence for several minutes. Finally the king said resignedly, 'They have the upper hand over us for now. I'm going to order up their Chinooks from the airbase at Glottenberh. They'll be here in half an hour.'
Ed was unreasonably disappointed. 'Is that it, sir?'
'For now. But we'll await our opportunities. We have time yet to think of ways to prevent their escape. As we speak, I'm on the line to NATO HQ and patched into the White House's crisis room. There are many hundreds of miles between here and the Belarus frontier. There'll be opportunities, or we'll make them for ourselves.'
'And their communications?'
'I've just called off the Growlers... but at least they can't stop us listening in.'
'No sir. What about my Fusiliers?'
'We maintain the perimeter for now. Elphberg out.'
'So this white deer...'
'... yeah, this giant white bunny-rabbit with horns, it wuz over there, right?'
'I think so.'
'So if it wuz goin' anywhere, it would have gone that way, right?'
'Well, if you got no better idea, babes, thass the way we go. Waddya think, Reggie?'
'Maybe there'll be tracks, sir.'
'Yeah, tracks. You know what giant bunny tracks look like?'
'It's a stag, idiot. Don't confuse the kid.'
Justin rolled his eyes. 'Go ahead of us, Reggie. See what yer can find.'
Reggie grinned. He liked the game of Damien-hunting. He trotted up the path scanning the ground seriously as he went. 'There's things like hoof marks in this muddy patch, sir!'
'Lead on then,' Nathan replied.
The dark aisles of the great forest opened out before them. Nathan and Justin walked together and, after a while, Nathan felt his hand being taken and squeezed. He smiled.
'Missed ya, Nate me mate.'
'And I you, my chavvy babe. There's no one like you in all the world. You're unique, mad, exciting and... d'you know, I wasn't worried about you in the least, kidnapped or not.'
'Really?' Justin stopped Nathan and looked curiously up at him.
'I knew you'd be okay. I finally realised you're a man who can deal with anything. I have no fear for you. You're my Justy, and it's their problem if people try to get you.'
Justin laughed. 'Yer finally twigged it then.'
'Yes. But I do miss you when you go away, babe. I've loved it here in Rothenia. We've been more like a family than we were in Haddesley, when you were off for weeks on end on your contracts. I'm just worried the new job is making you bored.'
'Nah. It wuz difficult at the beginning. But doan' worry, me babe, I fink I got it sussed now. Yer see, it dawned on me that I'm playing the big game at last. There were thrills and stuff when I wuz working for O'Brien Associates, but then it wuz only me reputation on the line. Now iss people's jobs, the prosperity of whole towns - regions maybe - all on me and what I decides. It gives me the biggest surge I've ever had in me life.'
'Doesn't the responsibility bother you?'
'I cares, believe me. But I woan' let it get ter me. If I did, I'd be crap at the job. Thass why Uncle Pete wants me at the top of PeacherCorp. He's the same. Together we'll take the firm ter new places, now Grandad Peacher's pulling outta the business.'
'So you knew what the move was really all about.'
'Yeah. It wuz a bit obvious. Yer could see in Terry's eyes that he didn't expect me back at Canary Wharf.'
'So we may be in Rothenia for a while.'
'Hope so. Most of me best mates are here, and Matt and Andy'll soon have that house to live in too. This is an amazin' country, babe. Iss beautiful, alarming, strange and exciting. Look at this place, for instance. Have yer ever seen such a wood? Iss like the forest in an old tapestry on a wall, iss more than just trees. How can I describe it...?'
Nathan nodded. 'I know what you mean. It's like the original wood, the one that all the rest are poor copies of. Its colours are so rich and it's full of hints of... I don't know, surprises and secrets. This is the forest where animals talk and doors in tree trunks lead to secret worlds below the earth. Does that make sense?'
'Strangely, babe, it does.'
They walked on quietly for a while. After ten minutes or so, Nathan called out, 'See anything, Reggie?'
The boy looked back. 'There's a little stream down here, sir. If we check the banks we may find tracks.'
They went down a slope to where a thin brown trickle wound through a muddy depression in the ground. Reggie hunted round for a few minutes before looking up disappointed.
'Nuffink there, Reggie?'
'Sorry sir. Nothing seems to have come this way. Maybe if we work our way towards the head of the stream we'll see some prints.'
'Sure enough, sweetheart'.
The three trudged up the rise. Just under the brow of a low ridge they found the source in a spring that gurgled into a wide bowl of churned-up mud, where many animals seemed to come to drink. After some patient scrutiny, Reggie chirped up, 'Here sir! It's the prints of a boy's shoes. He went up that little hill, I'm sure!'
'Great. Well done, Reggie. Yer a star!' The boy beamed at Justin's praise.
They climbed the last feet to the crest of the hill. The ground fell away gently on the other side, and through the trees they could see the towers of an ancient castle.
Nathan twitched his eyebrows. 'Welcome to Camelot!'
The gold key weighed heavily on Damien's hand. He scrutinised it carefully. The chain was made of simple links. The key itself - warm to the touch - was as pristine as a newly minted coin except for the smudges of his own fingerprints. It showed no mark of ownership or manufacture. He did notice some involved metalwork on the notches of its blade, although he couldn't quite work out what the pattern might signify.
Gazing suspiciously around the sunlit chapel, he got the distinct impression he was being observed. He glanced at the statue above him. Its stone face stared back with a maddeningly familiar expression... now where had he seen it before?
He shook his head, then scanned the wall paintings again. The boy in the pictures - and Damien was quite sure now that the boy was meant to be him - was being told to do something. There was a key and a door. He had the key, and it was undoubtedly made to the same design as the key in the picture. He supposed he needed to find the door. Since he'd seen nothing like it thus far in his exploration of the castle, he must carry on his search.
The chapel was the final room in the range he had been exploring. It adjoined the mound on which was built the great keep where those suspicious-looking men had been at work. So, if there were secrets, it was in the keep that they were likely to be found. How to get up there without attracting the attention of the guards at the gate?
Damien could see no way north out of the chapel. He therefore made his way south to the fourth room, a large chamber with two elaborate chimney pieces facing each other and four great windows opening on to the court. He noticed a small door in one of the corners. Beyond it was a tiny room containing two stone seats with holes opening into a shaft. It took little imagination to work out their purpose, for the stink of sewage past seemed to cling to them still.
On the far side of the ancient garderobe was a further doorway, cut through the thickness of the curtain wall. Entering it, Damien discovered a dark mural passage with steps leading abruptly downward into cellars below the chapel. By the dim light coming in through narrow embrasures near the arched roof, he could see a floor of white sand. Opposite him was another opening, this time with ascending steps. Since that was clearly the right direction, he pushed on into what he decided must be a passage built within the wall connecting the range to the keep.
Arrow slits to his right allowed Damien eventually to realise he was climbing the mound and was above treetop level. He came to a landing outside a closed oak door. Taking hold of its iron ring, he found it opened with little noise and effort. He was now on the first floor of the keep, a large vaulted space with a huge central pillar. Small windows gave some illumination, by whose faint light he could see that the place was quite empty.
Disappointed, he trotted up a turret stair to the next floor. The room there was similar to the one below except for an exterior door, clearly the one out of which he had earlier seen the guards emerge. Opening it a crack and peeping cautiously through, he made out the two men down at the gate, though they had stopped smoking and were now involved in an earnest discussion with a third person.
Damien decided to carry on his ascent. A spiral stair continued up one of the turrets. It was as he passed the fourth floor that voices and the heavy scuff of adult footsteps abruptly came echoing to him from below. He was trapped! He put on a spurt and found himself in the tower's top chamber.
Great Gothic windows looked in every direction, but there was nothing other than tree-covered hills to be seen. Searching frantically for somewhere to hide, Damien saw the chamber was bare except for two objects, one very much out of place.
On a table in the centre of the room sat a bright, shining metal canister with wires and tubes snaking out of its sides to connect with boxes of electronics. On one of them, the red numbers of a digital clock clicked away the seconds. An avid watcher of thriller DVDs, Damien immediately understood he was looking at a bomb attached to a count-down timer. He also recognised the trefoil symbol on the sticker pasted to the side of the canister: a yellow square with a black spot in the centre and three black rays coming out of it to make a Y shape, which he knew meant a radiation hazard.
Damien took in all this ominous array in a few seconds. The other object in the room was off in a corner by a hearth. As the voices below grew louder, he raced over to it and discovered it was a Gothic chest fashioned out of blackened iron. He tried the lid, but it was unyielding. Then he realised it had a lock, and he had a key. The gold key fitted in the hole and turned easily. Heaving the lid up, he crouched inside and let it close over him gently. But it was heavy and gave an ominous click as it fell too.
Damien had found his hiding place, but was he trapped?
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