It was a week after Henry assumed command at Kaleczyk that a communications lieutenant braved his displeasure by interrupting his senior-staff meeting. The look on the officer's face silenced any rebuke that might have come his way.
'Begging your pardon, sir, but you asked to be notified. Communication from our High Command. The Horde has moved. They've encircled the Hungarians concentrated on the frontier at Mohács, we have no idea how. The bulk of the Hungarian army is engaged and cut off from their high command.'
The grim faces around the table echoed the weight of the news. Henry kept his voice level. 'Thank you lieutenant, update us as you get more information. Now gentlemen, back to the issue of ranging fire ... which suddenly takes on a new urgency.'
He caught smiles amongst his officers at his deliberate insouciance. Morale was good at Kaleczyk, the fortress as prepared for the onslaught as it could ever be.
After the meeting had broken up, Henry got a line out to Ed Cornish.
'I take it you've heard the news, little babe?'
'Is it in the public domain?'
The Horde isn't media friendly. They filmed with its own cameras the crucifixion of a Canadian crew they cornered. So, all we get is what the over-flights and satellites tell us. The Hungarian high command is in chaos. It's not responding to requests for information, just demanding we commit forces to bail them out ... but we can't. The population of Budapest is in panic. Though the Horde is still a hundred kilometres away, the roads into the Slovak Republic are clogged. No one wants to be in the capital after what happened to Sofia and Belgrade. It's a humanitarian disaster of epic scale.'
Henry asked the big question: 'How long till they're at my gates?'
'Week to ten days,' came the laconic reply. 'There's nothing much now between them and you but mobs of refugees and fleeing units.'
The Cubs awoke as the night sky to the north began to flicker in red and white flame. The rumbling growl of distant artillery shook the windows of their refuge. There was subdued panic, boys calling out and falling over each other as they scrambled for their packs and possessions. They had learned to sleep clothed when they were on the march.
The same did not apply upstairs. Vuk shot out of bed naked, running to the upstairs window. Toby's erratic human mind registered greedily how the flares of light from outside coated the muscular planes and curves of Vuk's beautiful body with colour. Vuk's calmness infected him. He collected his lover's clothes and handed them to him quietly, watching as Vuk calculated the options. Vuk caught Toby's eyes, smiled and offered his lips. 'Love you, Tovyan. You're the boy for me, as cool as they come.'
'He's on the move,' Toby decided, 'heading north for Budapest.'
'My thought too,' Vuk agreed. 'Baby, I have to ask. You were in his harem, yes?'
Toby nodded abruptly.
'And it was Malik himself who raped and tortured you.'
'I'm not going to ask you anything else about what he did to you, baby. But I have to know this. Did you pick up much in his command centre about the plans of the Horde?'
Toby hung his head. There was so much he could say, but dared not. Vuk took him in his arms and kissed him. 'Sorry I had to ask, baby.'
Toby nestled into the Serbian, enjoying even the pungent staleness of Vuk's odour. The bodily aromas of all the boys were sharp, despite the efforts they made to stay clean, and Toby was aware that the output of his own human body was no different from theirs. Yet Vuk, as much as Toby, seemed to relish their personal smells in their lovemaking. Before meeting Vuk, Toby would have been disgusted by the animality of it. Now he hungered for it.
'It's okay, my Wolf,' he said, rallying. 'The last week I was there I was kept in a cell, but I heard enough to know that his army is planning to move through Hungary into Slovakia and Rothenia.'
'So they're going north, ignoring Austria and Slovenia. Risky. If we move, then we need to head west, away from the fighting.'
'The Horde is still fighting the Croats around Zagreb. It's dangerous. The war there is a guerrilla conflict and it would be very easy to get caught in the crossfire.'
'You have ideas, baby?' Vuk handed Toby the map he was using. 'We're here, just west of the Danube in the Croatian hills near Beli Manastir. That's where I found most of our lads and formed the Cubs.'
Toby frowned over the map in the candlelight. 'We need to head towards Austria. We must go northwest. There are German Bundeswehr divisions ranged along the Slovenian frontier blocking the Horde's approach to Vienna and Venice. Malik's men are going to fight their way up the Danube, bypassing Slovenia. They have to avoid engagement with the Germans. They'll try to move fast to penetrate Central Europe. Malik loves speed and catching his enemy off balance, and he doesn't play by military rules. He won't care that he'll lose half his army.'
'But how do we keep out of the war zone? It's all flat land to the north of us till you get to the Transdanubian Mountains and the big lake ... Balaton.'
'If I'm right, the Horde'll be heading away from us and we'll soon get to the hills. There'll be marauders and deserters spread across the plain, though. Malik loses hundreds every day. They'll be the danger for us.'
Vuk kissed Toby. 'You're impressive, know that? How did you know their language?'
Toby was thrown by this observation; he had nearly unmasked himself. His seraphic intellect translated all human communications instantly. 'I ... er ... know Greek and English. They use them a lot.'
Vuk looked at him fondly. 'You're amazing. Get dressed, baby. Though I love you naked, I can't have you teasing the Cubs.'
Toby adopted a solemn look. 'Vuk ... I can't turn the other boys away if they want me. You know it makes them happier, and I've learned to love them all, each in their way. Even Kristijan with his smelly feet.'
Vuk looked quirkily at his lover. 'I understand. I know your precious heart is mine, baby.'
Toby gazed yearningly into his face, and asserted with tears in his eyes, 'It is ... oh, it so is!' Yet he knew the heart he had just pledged to Vuk had already been shattered by the tragedy whose nature he at last understood, a horror for which he himself bore responsibility.
The Cubs dared not light campfires, though the nights were turning colder. So the light of the stars was all Toby could count on for his turn at guard duty. He hugged their one and only rifle to himself as he sat on the edge of the dell where they had taken shelter. He had no experience of weapons, but Vuk made the sentry carry it just the same, saying it was to give him confidence. Toby could just see his friends bundled up in their blankets below him. He comforted himself by supposing their enemies would be equally blind on this dark night.
Toby wasn't sleepy. He had learned to recognise the symptoms of that particular human condition and even welcomed it, except when the dreams got bad. Now, sitting under the night sky, his mind was racing. He had been human for at least ten days by his calculation, and it felt as if his intellect had been locked in a strange house full of odd sounds, spooks and demons. He had continually to fight through the distractions of moods and fears. At one point he was simmering with joy, at the next in deep despair. He had to hold on hard to the solid things in his new life, the most concrete of which were the Cubs. Despite all that, he felt far saner as a human than when he had been a seraph. Humanity had unexpectedly given his mind proportion.
This was what the Satan had long been telling him, and he had ignored the advice, half-smug when his rival had been exiled to the material and mortal world he loved so much. So how had his secularisation happened? Toby went over the options, and when he finally realised that only one entity could have done this to him, the shame of the conclusion rose up to strangle him. The Creator had at last moved, and it was His prime seraph that He had cast out of Heaven as too evil to be suffered there - for, as Toby knew now, he had done great evil despite intentions that seemed to him so unblemished. It was his humanity which was teaching him this bitter lesson.
Toby winced as he pondered his manipulations in the courts of Heaven. How had they begun? There was the moment during the Eschaton when he realised that the Satan's desire to attain full intellectual and emotional maturity could be used against him. No member of the seraphic order had objected to the Satan's transformation into a human boy, and the Satan's own angelic order had not dared contest what they knew had been their chief's dearest wish.
Unexpectedly, the growth of Lance Atwood into human adulthood had spellbound the Great Council. The consummation of his human love for the Mayer boy had caused astonishment even amongst the seraphs, who were deeply disturbed that angel and human could fuse so completely. Something new, unwelcome and potentially dangerous had come to pass, a thing not everyone believed was by the Creator's plan.
Toby had therefore come more and more to earth and had observed what few even of the angelic order had. The human revenant Gavin Price and his mate had been allowed to evolve quietly into something new, as had Lance Atwood; half-angels. He and Gavin, although following different paths, had arrived at the same destination: avians, magical creatures, mortal yet with angelic power. This directly threatened Toby's erelim, an order which was at best indifferent to the material world and its inhabitants, but now saw a rival terrestrial order rising within it.
It was then that Toby had made his move. He had been masterful, decisive and - above all, as he now saw - unbelievably arrogant. He had found a convergence of fate on a young bandit leader in northern Iraq: Mehmed Torossian, the one who now called himself Malik-rammu, in defiance of Heaven. Toby had lent him power and furthered his ambition.
As Malik's empire extended, Toby had devised an even more fiendish plan. He argued in the Great Council that the other archangels must join their prince on earth, so they too might experience what the Satan had, and participate in the fate the Creator had ordained for their order. But all unaware they carried with them the disease with which Toby's great magic had infected their human bodies, a virus he fondly hoped would spread into the human population. And so, between the onslaught of Malik's Horde and Toby's plague, the West would go down and the misery - as he saw it - of human existence be extinguished.
To his consternation, nothing had happened as he planned. To begin with, his longer and longer stays in a physical body had confused his mind. He had been seduced by sensation and emotion, particularly the need for love built into all the heavenly orders. He had fixed on the worst possible target for his devotion, the emperor of evil himself, to whom he had surrendered his core. It was Tobias the Seraph who had been conquered, as much as Europe.
Then there was the disaster in Eden, to which Toby had carried off the American Marine in his confused search to understand what it was that was deranging his perfect mind. Whom should he encounter there but Lance Atwood, on some bizarre mission with his lover and friends in avian form. In the end, Toby had been denounced as evil and hurled from that strange place, for the first time bested in a struggle for power with a lesser being.
That defeat should have warned him forces were arraying against him. Moreover, his willingness to terminate the helpless American - however surgically and quickly - should have told him that he had lurched into deep evil. The killing of a sentient being was not the same as swatting a fly.
To his surprise, the plague had not spread; Lance and his brothers had survived, and the number of avian half-breeds was rising. How it was happening he'd had no idea at the time, but it was clear now that the tide had set against him. That could only mean one thing: the Creator Himself had changed the rules. That at least gave Toby some hope. He wanted the evil he had set to work to be thwarted, desperately so. It threatened these frail boys who had taken him in and sheltered him, and worst of all it threatened Vuk.
It was a summer of miracles. There was a village on the Danube where the population had taken shelter in the church from the black legions of Malik-rammu marching their way, pillaging and wasting the land as they came. Men, women and children knelt awaiting their end while their priest delivered the last rites. They knew all too well what had happened to the lands further south. Even as they prayed, a mist rose from the river, still shimmering with the golden flowers that had bloomed there that summer. The fog was thick and cold; the black-clad Horde marched into the village and straight through it, totally unaware of the houses on either side.
Then there was the refugee column, tens of thousands of panicking people herded by the Horde towards a deep river, ready to be raped, slaughtered or enslaved. Toiling and in despair they came to a bridge and fled across it in a terrified, surging mob. No sooner had the last one limped on to the further bank and the first of the soldiers of Malik approached in pursuit, than the bridge cracked and collapsed into the waters below, leaving the Horde baffled of its prey. The oddest thing, as the refugees later realised, was that maps showed no bridge at that point on the river.
Istvan Istvesky was fifteen and good-looking. The Horde swept him up with other kids and he found himself in a barn with a squad of their slavers, the girls screaming and the boys white with fear as they were forcibly stripped of their clothing; some were not yet teenagers. Istvan was singled out as the first to be publicly raped. He was thrown naked on his back and his legs separated by two burly marauders. One roughly handled Istvan's penis and the other lined up to penetrate him. Istvan had never had sex before. In the terror and humiliation of the moment he prayed for death.
Death did not come, but as the rapist leaned over him ready to thrust up inside Istvan's exposed anus, a strange look came into the man's eyes ... a look of confusion followed by horror. Istvan raised his head to look down between them and saw the man's cock had shrivelled away to almost nothing. Then there were cries from the slavers as they blundered around screaming, clutching at their groins. The men raced outside in panic, many still naked, and that was the last the children saw of any of them.
Istvan helped the sobbing younger girls and boys recover their clothes, and as he and they stole away into the safety of the surrounding woods, he encountered a strange boy perched on a fence. The boy, about eight, with bright golden hair, seemed a little amused about something. Istvan went over to him to suggest he join them in their escape, in case the marauders returned. But before he reached the fence the boy winked at him, and was no longer there.
'Are you on a diet, Daimey?'
Damien put down his fork and wiped some spaghetti sauce from his mouth. 'Do I look like I'm dieting, babes?'
'Well if not, you're working out too much. I saw your ribs sticking out when you got up to pee last night. The bedside light showed your body in relief, and it resembled a cholera victim's.'
'Build me up, why don't you.'
'Is there something you're not telling me? Look, I ....'
'Babes, don't worry about me. It's my metabolism. Now I'm coming to the end of adolescence, I'm getting whippet-like, just like my dad.'
'Justin is not whippet-like, and I'll bet he never was.' Helen frowned. 'I'd like a bit more meat on my man. And another thing, have you got a temperature? You were so hot next to me last night, I had to throw the cover back.'
'It's this bug that's going round. Everyone's got it. I just didn't want to mention it.'
'Oh! I'll check out your dads' medicine cabinet. Don't get your hopes up. They're never ill. Have you heard from them?'
'Not Justin, Nathan's always got more to say. Currently he's being amusing about dad's transition into the officer class. They've confirmed his commission as captain, and Nathan says he spends hours in front of the mirror in their quarters, practising receiving salutes. Dad's officially a gentleman. I got a phone snap. Wanna see?'
Helen admired the picture of Justin Peacher-White in the undress uniform of an infantry captain, with braided cap and Rothenian blue jacket. His decoration at the throat was his first-class medal of the Order of Henry the Lion.
'He's really handsome,' she concluded, before adding, 'Daimey, don't you think it's time that we shared the existence of the avians with your dads at least? And what about your Uncles Henry and Ed?'
'I was thinking about it. But then all this shit began happening.'
'If the avians go to war with the Horde, people are going to notice.'
'I know, but it's ... complicated.'
'I talked it over with Gabe and Reggie at school last week. Gabe was a bit down on the idea. His point is that the more we change into avians, the harder it gets to change back to human form. There'll come a time very soon when we'll stay avian permanently. Do we want to live as freaks in human society? So this war may be our first and last. How're your girls doing?'
'Lance was furious. He discovered Maria von Wallenstein and Heidi Derschalsteijne fucking with the Meric brothers in mid-air over the Green Hills. They'd driven out in Maria's car and then made an unlicensed transformation, with the all-too-inevitable consequences. They were really going at it, screaming loud enough to split trees. He couldn't break them apart, so we may have our first fledglings on the way.'
'Great! Last thing we need.'
'It was bound to happen. The bigger the dick, the bigger the ... dickhead.'
'Nicely put, sweetheart. Sums up my gender neatly.'
The Cubs took a rest in the heat of the August afternoon. One or two kept looking uneasily out of the wood where they were sheltering to the spires of smoke rising into the clear sky across the empty plain to the east of them. The Horde was not too far away.
A small fire of dry wood was crackling away, giving off a shimmer of heat but no smoke. It was boiling up water for tea. As far as food went they still had a reserve of tinned meat and vegetables, but it was disappearing fast. Toby was impressed at Vuk's confidence that they'd find food and shelter soon. His lover was sitting alone, scrutinising the road atlas of Central Europe that was their only navigation aid, other than a small pocket compass.
Radu and Kristijan were having a subdued debate about something, so Toby went to sit with them. This desire to associate with other humans was a growing compulsion for him, and he had learned that adolescent boys were particularly keen on talking, at least at a certain level.
'What's up?' Toby had found this simple phrase usually triggered the social interaction he wanted.
Kristijan, a bright boy with glasses, rolled his eyes. 'It's Radu. He's going on about the Horde being Muslim and having a picture of Mohammed on their flags - you've seen the one - but that's not right. Even I know Muslims think pictures of their Prophet are blasphemous.'
'So who do ya think it is, Specs?' Radovan retorted.
'I think it's their god ... this Nameless One they worship. I saw a programme on TV just before the invasion. It said the Horde aren't Muslims at all, but some sort of pagans who worship a god of death.'
Toby pondered what these boys would say if they knew the Nameless One himself was sitting in their midst without socks and underpants, in a battledress jacket too big for him and a dead man's trainers - clothes that hadn't been properly washed for weeks. 'I was held prisoner by them for a long time,' he commented quietly
'We know.' Kristijan caught his hand and squeezed it. Again the gesture of comfort brought tears to Toby's eyes.
'The flags are everywhere,' Toby continued. 'Some of the worst of the Horde make sacrifices to the Nameless One, so I heard ... human ones. But the Nameless One doesn't ask for them. It's just a way for wicked men like them to do evil things and blame their depravity on this god of theirs.'
'What does this Nameless One look like? A serpent? A dragon?'
'No, it's supposed to be a winged boy, just like on the flags. You might mistake it for an angel, but if it is, it's one who's fallen a long way.' More tears threaded their way down Toby's cheeks as he said that.
'Tovyan, you're getting upset,' Kristijan soothed. 'Let's not talk about it. Here, the tea's ready. A cup will make you better.'
It did make Toby feel better, especially when Janko nestled up to him companionably. He wanted to talk about the route ahead, but he also had another concern. He whispered close to Toby's ear, 'Can you look at this, Tovyan? It's getting annoying.' He unzipped his fly and pulled out his penis, the head and foreskin of which were angry and inflamed.
'That looks bad.'
'It's hot and it itches like fuck and there's all this smelly white stuff.'
Toby plumbed his seraphic memory about the way human bodies were put together. 'It's an infection, probably yeast.'
Janko looked a little relieved. 'I thought it was an STD, but then I've only ever had sex with you, and you're alright aren't you? How do I get rid of it?'
'Have you been washing it regularly?'
'How can I?'
'It's a puzzle then.' Toby pondered this problem, tiny in the cosmic scale but important enough to him because it affected one he cared for. He got an empty can and filled it with some of the water they had heated. He took Janko out of sight of the others, pulled his jeans down to his knees, took his penis and wanked it erect.
'What're you doing?'
'On your hands and knees. You need to have your foreskin retracted and this is the best way to do it. You didn't think that ...?'
'Er ... no. Of course not.'
'I've put some of our salt in the water. Now I'm going to hold the can so you can dip your penis into it.'
'Ow! It's hot.'
'Just hold it there. It'll do some good. I'll massage it clean. That's right.'
'I feel stupid. Vuk better not see me like this. I'm still hard!'
Toby giggled, a thing Janko made him do. He kissed the boy on the lips, and got one back. After a while Janko sighed that it felt a lot less itchy. They dried him off and he pulled his jeans up. 'Thanks, Tovyan. It feels way better.'
'Well it won't stay better unless you wash it regularly. Sooner we're off the road the better. Something tells me this will be only the first of many problems.'
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