'Get up slowly or I'll slit your throat,' the voice in his ear demanded. Toby complied.
The voice was low and determined. It was also young: 'You're a fucking mess. But you can understand me, so at least you're a Serb, not one of those Turkish bastards. What's your name?'
'Tobias? Doesn't sound Serb. Now, turn slowly.'
The knife was withdrawn from Toby's neck and he did as he was told. He was facing a lean, dark youth of about seventeen who was appraising him narrowly.
Toby's fear abated somewhat. He decided he was not about to be knifed. 'Who's that?' he asked, indicating the dead boy.
'Srecko? A fucking idiot. Nearly got us all killed 'cos he couldn't follow orders. Deserved what he got.'
'Call me Vuk.'
'That's me. The Turks have fucked off for now, but we gotta get outa here fast. Follow me, unless you wanna stay here and join Srecko. Moon'll be up for the next few hours. Where're your clothes?'
'I had to escape.'
'Runaway boy-whore from the camp, yeah? Not surprised. Was that patrol after you?'
'Me? I ... uh ... don't think so.'
Vuk had knelt down and was stripping Srecko's corpse. He looked up and grinned. 'Not too particular, I hope?' He tossed a pair of trainers at Toby, who sat down and tied them on. They were a bit large for him, but he wasn't in any position to complain.
'You won't want his top. He bled all over it. Still, it'll wash off.' As he stuffed the late Srecko's clothes in his shoulder bag Vuk pondered the naked corpse, pathetic and white under the moon. Then he shrugged and walked into the shadows.
Toby trotted after, feeling the relief of being shod once more. The night air was chilling fast, however, and with his upper body naked he was shivering hard when they emerged into a clearing.
Two more boys were there, packs strapped to their backs. 'Srecko?' asked one.
'Bullet in the head. Probably still wondering if he's dead or not.'
The boy grunted. Apparently Srecko was not one who would be readily missed. 'Who's this?'
'Escapee. Name's Tovyan, he says. Doesn't look Jewish though. You Jewish?'
'Not recently,' Toby replied.
'What the fuck does that mean?' Vuk seemed irritated. 'Look, jerkoff, you do what you're told and give straight answers if you want to take up the place in my band Srecko just vacated. No fucking games.'
'Sorry,' Toby responded meekly. Vuk was apparently satisfied with the submissiveness.
'Carry this while I go ahead,' he ordered, and Toby shouldered the weight of Vuk's bag. They trudged up and over the wooded hill. Beyond, the landscape opened out, brightly lit under the full moon. Campfires glowed and sparkled as far as the eye could see.
Vuk paused and deliberated. 'They're getting ready to move, seems to me. There're way more camps than there were even yesterday. It's too dangerous coming down here and they leave nothing to steal. We need to get back to the hills.' He turned right along the ridge, seeming confident about his route even in the dark. His companions followed him unquestioningly.
The moon slowly sank in its arc towards the horizon. As it was about to disappear, Vuk held up his hand. They stopped. The boy let out a high whistle, and it was answered close by. A lamp lit up and was shone on them.
'Dipshit! What did I tell ya? Don't give away your position till you're sure we're not followed.' Vuk was apparently irritated again.
He was answered by a laugh from the direction of the light. 'No one's after ya, Vukas̆in!' A younger boy emerged from the trees.
Vuk growled, 'This is Tovyan, a new recruit. Tovyan, this is Janko, my little brother. Srecko won't be coming back, so give Tovyan his stuff and bed ... oh yeah, and clean him up, he stinks. He shit himself somewhere back there.'
As the younger boy grinned up at him, Toby felt more humiliated by that offhand remark than by anything Malik had ever done to him.
Finally it happened. 'Daimey, your hair! It's got grey in it.'
'Really, babes? I'm not in the least surprised.'
'But you're not even eighteen!'
'It's all the worry. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that, 'cept I don't have a crown but an armlet ... and how could a bicep lie uneasy?'
'My dad went grey when he was young too.'
'He did? Nathan never mentioned it.'
Damien put paid to the debate the usual way. They kissed a long time. The pair were occupying the Fridricsgasse house on their own, now Nathan and Justin were at Kaleczyk with the army. It had been a week, and Helen was getting comfortable with unrestricted cohabiting. She was already talking about getting an apartment of their own, once university approached. They shopped in the supermarket like a married couple. Damien found it a soothing activity in the present ominous state of his world.
Breaking off the kiss, he sat Helen on his lap and flicked on Eastnet 24, where a reporter was transmitting live from Budapest. The scrolling headline ran: NEW AGGRESSION FROM TURKIC CONFEDERATION. 'Buggers are on the move again,' Damien observed. Pictures shifted to a night sky lit up by artillery flashes.
Helen was brooding. 'Seems to me it's time for us to mobilise too. How many of the cadets have you signed up for the air force we're putting together?'
'All of the upper-school kids: they're hetero, which'll redress the gay imbalance. I transformed right in front of them in the sports hall with the doors locked. It was amazing really: no screaming, fainting or refusing to believe what they'd seen. But they're Rothenian kids, and they know how weird the world really is. I guess what persuaded the boys most was the dick enhancement when I showed them mine, and the girls ... well, they love the dick enhancement too. You okay for Luchau tomorrow? The forest gives us cover. We've got enough cars to get the new recruits there.'
'You're hoping for a mile-high, aren't you.'
'Thought so. Daimey, if we screw in the sky this time, as like as not we'll breed. Are you ready for that?'
'There's got to be safe sex for avians.'
'They don't do condoms that big.'
'What about coitus interruptus?'
'You have a short memory. Once we got going, with the wind and the beating wings, what could have stopped us? I certainly didn't want you to take your penis out till you came in me. It was awesome for me too.'
'It's not as nice for girls. We have no prostate.'
'Then we have a problem, 'cos I want to do it so bad, and the new guys won't be able to stop themselves. I can remember well enough the power of the avian urge to screw. Once they're transformed, the newbies will be straight up in the sky in their pairs.'
Helen frowned, then suddenly sniggered. 'I have an idea.'
There were seven of the Wolf Cubs, as Vuk called his little band. There had been more. Srecko wasn't their first casualty. In the yard behind the abandoned quarry building that was their refuge were several small mounds where the Cubs had buried their dead. Wooden boards defiantly proclaimed the names of the lost children to an indifferent world.
Janko sadly surveyed the yard. 'The youngest ones didn't last long. They got tummy bugs and couldn't eat. That was my friend.' He indicated a board marked VALENTIN in Cyrillic script. A chain of daisies was draped over it. 'He was only eight. We found him in a house where all the adults were dead.'
'What about your parents?' Toby was feeling strange things, as if his stomach had disappeared. His eyes were prickling unaccountably and there was a catch in his voice.
'Vuk and I got separated from them when the Horde came into this region. We were trying to cross over into Croatia, but there was an attack on the column. Vuk dragged me into a ditch and then a wood. When we got back to the road, there were only bodies. But none of them were father and mother. Vuk says we'll find them again, once the Rothenian king saves us.'
'The Rothenian king?'
'The Red Elphberg. Everyone says he's the one to defeat the Horde. He'll liberate our land and pay those Turkic bastards back for all they've done.
'The king of Rothenia is a boy younger than you. His name is Macsijm.'
'He is? Everyone says he's a man.'
'That's his father, the Prince of Elphberg.'
'Oh! You know a lot. What about your parents?'
'I ... er ... never had any that I met.'
'When did you get captured?'
'A couple of weeks ago.'
'Did they ...?'
'Rape me? Yes. You saw my backside.'
'I'm sorry,' the kid said in a small voice. His hand sought Toby's and squeezed it. And Toby learned for the first time what it was like to be comforted. It seemed to make his heart melt.
He squeezed Janko's hand back and offered the reassurance that seemed asked of him in these human exchanges. 'It's a lot better now.'
All the boys slept together in a dusty upper room where what passed for beds were laid out. The third night Toby awoke in the dark. They slept naked and he was on his stomach. Rain was beating on the roof above them. A finger ran gently down the channel of his back to his crack, where it rested and stroked. Toby recognised the situation well enough. Pushing back on the questing digit to show acceptance, he gasped when it found its way inside him and felt around.
He lay still as the weight of another boy settled across his back. He did not resist. It was a service he could offer his protectors. He raised his buttocks to assist the boy's entry, and lay quiet as a sizeable dick slid easily in and out of his hole. The boy - whoever it was - eventually groaned out his orgasm in Toby's ear. There was a hesitation, and then a kiss on his cheek as his nocturnal lover lifted off and resumed his own bed. Toby fell asleep again.
It became a regular occurrence over the next few days, several times a night. It was tacitly recognised that Toby was happy to offer the other boys relief. He realised they were not gay, just desperate for the comfort of intercourse with another warm body. For Toby it meant acceptance in the pack. The other boys smiled at him a lot and were gentle with him, leaving him small gifts and changing his over-used bedding.
Mostly the copulation in the dark was mechanical and rough, but there was one exception to the functionality of it. He knew by his sense of smell that Vuk was the one who kissed him during and after sex and stayed to hug and caress him in the dark. Vuk soon progressed to sucking him off, though with more enthusiasm than technique.
In the daytime he kept catching Vuk staring at him. Toby came to realise he had made his first sexual conquest. It gave him an odd thrill, quite unlike his encounters with Malik. He was by no means indifferent to Vuk either, which made the conquest all the more special. Vuk had qualities Toby was learning the value and meanings of: fearlessness, leadership, fairness and responsibility.
Janko finally confirmed that his brother was in love with Toby as they were washing in the yard from buckets of cold water. The boy must have been thirteen or fourteen, judging by his development. He was sizing up Toby in turn as he said, 'My brother really likes you.'
'He does?' Toby's emotions took control once more and he blushed down to his shoulders.
'He's also very grateful.'
'Er ... why?'
'The other boys need to do it, and Vuk was getting really worried that he'd be forced to offer me to them.
'Srecko was an asshole about it. Vuk had a big fight with him when he tried to put his dick in me last week while I was sleeping.'
'Then you come along and you're way prettier than me, and you seem to be okay with taking it. Do you like my brother?'
'Umm ... I don't know. Don't you mind his attraction to other boys?'
'Vuk's special. He said he'd have offered his own bum to the others rather than let them take me. He says he can tell I wouldn't like sex with boys, not that way. But then, if he'd let them fuck him, he would have lost his leadership, so it really is great you turned up. Does it hurt when they put it in you?'
'Not any more. It actually feels really good when a guy gets going inside me.'
'You make funny noises in the dark.' Janko sniggered. 'They don't sound as though it hurts you. Is it nice, sex?'
'I guess. Have you ever done it?'
'Not with anyone else.'
That night a new body took a turn on Toby's back; it was thinner and lighter and it kept suppressing giggles. It humped him frantically when its penis finally found the spot and came pretty quickly. The two cuddled, kissed and giggled together after Janko had finished, until one of their companions stirred and told them to shut the fuck up. Toby felt he had learned something new about human sexuality, that fun could be had there. He was socialising far more rapidly than he realised.
The next morning Toby was taking his turn at filling the water buckets from the stream beside the quarry when he became aware that he had been followed. Vuk came behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. 'Tovyan ... I ...' he began, and then blushed and looked away.
Toby felt a pressing need that the boy should continue talking to him. In fact he found he was trembling, but could not tell why. 'Are you angry with me?' he had to ask.
'Angry? With you? Oh, no.'
'Well, Janko ...'
'Did he do it with you last night? He asked me if I minded.'
'He was quick ... not like you. You make love to me, you're the only one who does that.'
Vuk had turned bright red, and finally blurted out, 'I'm not gay!'
'I can't be. But when I see you, looking like you do ... all I can think of is you. Maybe if there were girls around, but the Turks have rounded them up and sent them south. Perhaps it's because you're so beautiful.'
'You wish I were female?' Toby for some reason felt offended. 'You think it's wrong to want me?'
'Of course it's wrong. I'm the leader here. How can I be gay? I'm a proper man!'
Toby frowned. 'Malik-rammu is gay. Does that stop him leading other men?'
'Their emperor is a homo! How can you know that?'
'I just do.'
Vuk was looking at him narrowly. 'There's more to it than you're saying. Where exactly did you escape from?'
Toby did not answer and returned to his buckets, but Vuk grabbed a fistful of hair and hauled him up. Now Toby felt something new to him: something hot and furious that had been boiling deep down inside for far longer than he realised. It screamed out of him. 'Hit me then, why don't you! Torture me ... that's what he liked doing!'
Vuk released him, standing stunned and open-mouthed as Toby snatched up the buckets and stormed off back to the quarry building, the water sloshing unregarded on to the path.
Lance had nobly answered Damien's call for weekend support, even to the point of cramming four teenage girls into his car. They were pretty intolerable: hyper-excited over the avian rally at Luchau, and when they weren't badgering him about that, they were on about German boy singers he'd never heard of and didn't want to. Obedient to instructions, he followed Reggie's SUV - itself packed with another eight girls - into the car-park in one of the remotest parts of the forest, only accessible after a fifteen-kilometre drive through a military reservation. When they unloaded there were seventeen girls in all, including the contingent in Helen's Peugeot.
It was still quite early as they had started before dawn. There were no tourists or campers around. Summer visitors had melted away in the present international crisis.
'Ooh!' called one girl. 'Where're the boys, Helen? We so want to see them in their new skins.'
There were shrieks and giggles and some surprisingly coarse jokes at that comment. Helen rolled her eyes at Lance and adopted her best matter-of-fact air. 'Follow Lance and Reggie up that track, then we can talk about new skins.'
So they toiled off through the trees and after half an hour came to a remote green hilltop with a fine view of the forest cover for miles around. There was no sign of human habitation, not even a rangers' tower. Helen unpacked bottled water and got the girls to sit around.
They were still talking until she cut them off. 'Now, Daimey's already shown you what an avian looks like ...'
'HUGE!' shrieked one girl, then went red at the disdainful look she got from cadet-lieutenant Debies.
'And you know he has the power to transform others as well as himself. He's doing that at this very moment.'
'Where?' Several girls looked round as if the man in question was there to be seen.
'About two hundred kilometres away with your boyfriends near Maresku.'
'What! We all started together.'
'But I never said we'd end up in the same place.' She quelled them with a frown. 'There's a good reason for this. Avian sex drive is powerful, and there's no way to stop it once it starts. We don't want lots of fledglings popping out before we're ready for them, so it's going to be single-sex training sessions.'
'But Reggie and Lance are here!'
'Yes, well, they're not going to get it on with any of you, are they? And Lance can trigger the transformation just as well as Daimey can, so ... are you ready? Then undress.'
Vuk did not visit Toby's bed that night, and when Toby awoke the next morning it was to hear a tremendous argument coming from outside their dilapidated refuge. He threw on some clothes and went out to see what was going on.
Janko was sitting at his brother's feet and the rest were in a circle around them. The current beta male, Radovan - the small size of whose member even at full erection made him most notable to Toby - was contesting Vuk's mandate. 'Look, we've been okay for a couple of weeks now. No one comes up here. The Turks stay down on the plain.'
Vuk snarled, 'You don't hear a word I say to ya, Radu. The food's low and we gotta move on to where we can get some more. Kristijan's had sod-all luck trapping rabbits. We only got the one rifle, so what're the chances of hunting something bigger? 'Sides, letting that off will attract attention. So we move back towards the village along the ridge. It was empty when we last scouted it, and has better shelter. Besides that, the number of Turks is growing along the frontier. You saw the camps. They'll be moving up here next.'
The last comment swung it. The boys began packing what they could carry, and even Toby shared their dejection. The derelict building was all the home any of them had. He was handed a too-large battledress jacket and a heavy pack was strapped to his back. All the boys were clothed in some variety of camouflage gear, and Vuk had an assault rifle on his shoulder. Janko, as the most lightly burdened, was sent on as advance scout.
They toiled off through the trees in a line, Vuk leading. The boys made way for Toby to follow immediately after him. The connection between the two was being tacitly acknowledged by the group, though Toby wasn't sure it had meaning any more. It added to his heartache. The row with Vuk had hurt him in an unfamiliar way. He hated the distance growing between him and the one human being who had showed him true and disinterested tenderness.
They marched in despondent silence through the sun-dappled woods. Apart from the flutter and call of birds, nothing much disturbed the quiet. Vuk seemed to know the lie of the land, even under the trees, so eventually they came upon a track which emerged from the woodland on to a road. Janko was waiting for them, and nodded when his brother asked if all was clear. They walked on cautiously till roofs appeared above the hedges. Vuk himself went forward, unshipping his rifle. Eventually a sharp whistle summoned them onwards,
'Still empty,' was their leader's comment. 'Stripped of anything valuable. We can stay here tonight and decide where to go in the morning. We'll bed down on the far edge of the village. The blue-painted house is least exposed, as it has its own access lane. We'll see anyone coming well before they reach us and there's an escape route into the woods. Agreed?'
There were murmurs and nods from the others. They camped in the abandoned house, still littered with the personal effects of its owners. Janko just shook his head when Toby asked what had happened to them. The boys slept on carpets, chairs and sofas. They found candles to offer some light and covered the windows.
There was a big bed upstairs which was conceded to Vuk. He hesitated at the stair, then turned and deliberately took Toby's hand, pulling him to his feet. Toby caught the other boys' eyes staring as he followed Vuk out of the room.
'Sleep with me tonight, Tovyan ... please. I'm sorry for what I said. I hurt you. I didn't mean to do it. I ....'
Vuk gulped, then continued, 'Every day could be our last, and the times I joined with you were the best in my life so far. I want to make the most of what's left to me. That means I want to spend it with you ... or better still, in you.' Then for the first time Vuk grinned, a little sheepishly. When he did so, he was the vulnerable boy behind the mask, and to Toby by then a very desirable boy indeed. He hurled himself into Vuk's arms, doing a thing he had never done before, but which he tentatively identified as sobbing.
'Easy, baby,' Vuk laughed. 'I'm not sure I'm worth it.'
'Oh, you are! You are! I love you, Vukas̆in.'
'And I'm a homo, 'cos I love you back. That's me screwed.'
Later, as he lay awake in the strong, brown arms of this young man who was now the centre of his personal universe, Toby went over and over what had happened to him, trying to make sense of it all. He had thought he loved Malik, but had no idea then what love was, other than it must be an animal condition: something to do with trading power for security, submission for safety, dignity for sexual favour.
Now he knew differently. Love was surrendering himself to one who offered himself just as freely back. It was trust, tenderness and care, one for another. How could he have been so stupid, so blind? It was the most joyously uncertain and precarious thing he had ever experienced in all his existences. The richness of mortal life stood at last revealed. He could see now what stood behind human music and poetry. And he had plotted to end it all! The enormity of his stupidity almost strangled his elation with guilt, because the events he had set in motion could not now be stopped. He and his beloved were under the tread of the juggernaut he himself had devised.
And in this way, did he but know it, was Lance Atwood most exquisitely avenged on his oldest enemy.
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