'Jeez! So that was Atib. And he's gone with the duke? What the …' Vuk stood staring after the motorcade, powerless. The situation was for once plainly beyond him.
He looked helplessly at Toby, who exclaimed, 'We've got to do something, Vukašin! It's obvious what's going on. Somehow the Horde has come to an arrangement with that bad man, the duke! He's going to smuggle Atib and his thugs into Rothenia … they'll do something terrible if they cross the border, I can feel it.'
'What can we do, Tovyan? This is for police and politicians to sort out.'
Toby made a hopeless gesture. 'Trouble is, by the time we get anyone even to listen to us, it'll be too late. We have to do something now!'
Toby's eyes pleaded with Vuk, an appeal that could not be ignored. Snapping into his survival mode he decided, 'Our only hope's the old truck again. Marsin and Radu, go check it out! I'll find Janko and the others. We'll be back soon.'
Toby stared blankly down the access road for quite a while as his mind raced. He had been given a glimpse of one of Malik's stratagems, he was sure. That Atib might very well be expended in its performance was equally clear. Perhaps his part in Toby's escape had been discovered, and a suicide mission was his punishment. It seemed that Malik had by some means gained access to members of the Elphberg royal family, traitorous ones.
Toby knew little about the duke of Glottenberh, who had never come within the sphere of his seraphic notice. He did know something about the duchess, however, because it had been necessary for him to become acquainted with her past machinations – those of a woman with no moral compass: vain, devious and manipulative. He himself, he was ashamed to acknowledge now, had contemplated using her at one point in his schemes, although he had finally rejected her as too unreliable and egotistical. It seemed, however, that Malik-rammu was not so particular.
It was half an hour before Vuk returned, looking harassed. He brought only Kristijan with him. To Toby's raised eyebrow he replied, 'Big row. I told Janko he couldn't come this time, that he had to stay and take care of Klement. The pair of them weren't happy with me at all. The parents walked in on it, and then all hell broke loose. In the end, I …'
Vuk faltered, and Kris took his arm gently. 'He told his father he could fuck off, the tyrant. Their time was done. If he wouldn't acknowledge him as a worthy son, then he rejected the man as in any way a decent father.'
Toby was distraught. 'Oh no. I'm so sorry, Vukašin. That was the last thing you needed to have happen.'
Vuk mastered himself. 'Fuck it. It had to be said. Now where're Radu and Marsin?'
'No sign of them.'
'Then down to the truck we go. Kris packed some of your stuff with his own. I didn't have time to grab anything. I'm back where I started, apart from the fact that in the meantime I've found you, Tovyan, and you're worth a million of my dad.'
Kris gave a quirky grin. 'And you smell nicer too.'
The three friends walked down to the parking area where they'd left their truck. Coming the other way in handcuffs, escorted by two burly federal policemen, were Radu and Marsin. The pair caught Vuk's eyes, and Marsin gave a helpless shrug, though otherwise they studiously avoided recognising their friends.
The three stared after the captives. 'Oh shit,' cursed Vuk. 'Some days you just can't win.'
A cautious approach to the truck found it unguarded but wheel-clamped. Their old friend and saviour wasn't taking them anywhere.
Lance and Mike sat a little uneasily at their desks. The engineer lieutenant had explained the setup and they had been fitted with headphones. Once thoroughly grounded in what they had to do, they would alternate four-hour shifts listening to long-distance radio traffic of potential interest to Kaleczyk.
The computerised scanners were sampling the frequencies in the 10m through 160m bands as most likely to carry the Horde's communications. Anything within range of the fortress's antennae that the scanners did not consider noise was automatically recorded, then streamed to Lance or Mike for evaluation. A formidable back-log had already been accumulated, with each potential message fragment listed by time and frequency on a computer screen. Lance, finding the display confusing, rather envied his brother's focus. Catching Mike's eye, he was given the nod to disappear and get a drink.
Lance made his way to the base commissary, a former underground dormitory now well-lit and crammed with tables. Ignoring the coffee urns for a cup filled with ice and coke, he glanced round the room. He was aware, as ever, that he drew gazes. This time he was reasonably sure it had as much to do with the identity of his father as his own looks. After all, barely five per-cent of the garrison was statistically likely to be gay.
Recognising distant faces, he made off in that direction. 'Hey Gav! Hey Max!'
Regardless of where they were, the three young men embraced and kissed. Fortunately this was a practice common amongst Rothenian straights.
'Welcome to Château Atwood, Lance!' Max Jamroziak said with a happy grin.
'I see you guys are starting at the bottom of the military pile too.'
'Ah, you've noticed the lack of rank insignia,' Gavin observed. 'Somehow Max and I don't feel like potential members of the officer class. Terry and Justy rose effortlessly, and now we all have to salute them. But we do have these…' He tapped a shoulder flash blazoned with the words ULTRA ULTIMA. 'They get you noticed here. The siege of Belvoir is a Rothenian military legend. Anyone who fought with Rudi in that engagement is so envied. They're better than a sergeant's stripes for earning you immediate respect.'
'I was sorta there,' Lance observed. 'Admittedly, I was locked up in a piece of supernatural wood … but I think I may regard myself as a veteran nonetheless.'
'And look at you now, Private Atwood,' Max commented. 'Who'da thought you'd turn out like you have, human boyfriend an' all. How's young Reggie?'
'Wishing he were here, but he's still a minor, and his mum's position as ambassador would be compromised if she allowed him to join up.' Lance took a moment to think as he swigged his coke, then deliberately began, 'Can you guys tell me a few things about your transforming into winged creatures?' Eyebrows raised across the table, but he wasn't discouraged from continuing. 'I know it came with the package after Gav was sent back, and that it was Max's reward. Do you … er … get horns … I mean, forehead-type ones?'
Gavin responded with surprise, 'Horns? No. I get silver wings while Max gets a great gold set, there are facial and … er … genital changes and our skin's different. Max has like an all-over suntan, while I'm pale but slightly luminous. Any clothes and possessions on our human bodies evaporate at the moment of change. We're meant to live and fly naked in that form.'
'Don't forget the illuminated eyes!' added Max. 'The hair gets thicker and richer too.'
'Facial hair?' Lance enquired.
Gavin was looking him over appraisingly. 'Where's this coming from, Lance?'
Lance took an internal gulp. 'It's been given to me too.'
Gavin contemplated him for a moment. 'And it's not just you, is it.'
'What? You know about our avian tribe?'
Max shook his head. 'Not exactly, but Gav sensed something as soon as we arrived. He was aware of avians here in Rothenia, although they were concealed from him. He could feel their frustration too. I think you'd better tell us the story, young Lance.'
So Lance began his tale, the ice melting unregarded in his forgotten coke.
There was a long silence when he finished. Finally Gavin sighed. 'Of course, you might call us ex-avians.'
'You can only swap species for a while. The avian part of you gets stronger all the time you're in that form. Your body doesn't want to change back to human, so in the end you have to choose. We stayed human because … well, we didn't want to have to live as freaks. Who'd choose to be Bigfoot?'
Max snorted ironically. 'Or Bigdick?'
Gavin frowned. 'But this changes things. To know there's a growing tribe of us out there, with females and a developing society as a new species … that's different. And I get the impression Daimey has plans to build an avian nation.'
Lance nodded. 'It doesn't seem we can stop ourselves. The sex drive is too powerful. Mike mated with Marky before he left for Kaleczyk, even though he knew the risk of getting her pregnant. The new recruits have been fucking like winged monkeys whenever they can, despite anything anyone can say to them. Odds are there are fledglings on the way, lots of them. That may be why there's such a high proportion of gays amongst us. It'd be one way of keeping the population under control. Even so, gay guys have turned female when they transform, and some seem happy with it. Marky was quite a surprise to everyone, not least himself … or herself. I get confused.'
Gavin leaned back in his chair, clearly a little overwhelmed. 'When all this is over, we need a long talk with our avian prince. There's something I don't get about the whole business. I don't think it's accidental.'
Lance pondered for a moment. 'I don't think so either. When we colonised Eden we were under protection, and only two friendly forces could have subdued the elementals and sheltered us: the Dead and the Creator. There's a plan behind the avians.'
'Did you talk to little Maxxie about it?'
'No. Perhaps I should have done. He may have some ideas. No one knows what link he has with the Creator, but there has to be some traffic between them. Daimey's interview with the Dead in the Isles of the Blessed revealed they were involved in Maxxie's reincarnation. Perhaps both players are combining on this. The avian nation may be their great offer of hope to humanity.'
Gavin and Max meditated on this. Finally Gavin commented, 'If it's their hope, then maybe we should be helping it along. I'm ready to take Damien as my prince.'
'Me too. Hot young guy,' Max added. 'I'll bet he's so well-endowed as an avian.'
Lance rolled his eyes. 'And they tell me teens are immature.'
The boards of the truck bed cracked as Vuk unceremoniously levered them up. He silently handed a pistol and ammunition to Kristijan, who stashed them in his pack.
They jumped down again. 'Well, at least we're tooled up. Now we'd better hit the road. How do we get to Rothenia in a hurry?'
Scrounging around in the cab, Vuk recovered his trusty road atlas, which they spread out between them on the ground. Toby pointed to the routes. 'It's easy enough to get into Rothenia from the west, but in every other direction there are mountains. From the south – where we are – there's the Waltherberh pass, but that's a rail link. The road routes run along the Starel valley, sixty kilometres east of here.'
'So the best means is the train, you think?'
'Papers will be a problem. But we'll think about that when we have to. How's the cash situation?' Toby scavenged in his jacket pockets and produced two hundred dollars. Vuk mused, 'I'll go and change them to euros. The card gangs offer an advantageous rate for dollars. Give me half an hour and in the meantime you work out which is the nearest stopping station on the Rothenian route.'
Toby met Kristijan's curious gaze. 'So, who's this Atib guy, Tovyan, and what's your connection with him?'
It was time for some truth. 'Kris, when Vuk found me in the woods I was on the run. I'd just escaped from Malik's villa where he was … using me as a sex toy. Atib was … is … his closest bodyguard. They've been together for years. It was Atib who engineered my escape. It wasn't because he liked me particularly, but he thought his emperor's fixation on abusing me was affecting the Horde.'
'What did you feel under my balls, Kris? The bumps and holes there were his first instalment of altering me: a big brass ring inserted in my crotch to tie me down when he forced me on to dildos so long and thick I couldn't get off them without help. My hair was going to be next to go, then my testicles and penis would have been taken from me.'
'Jesus Christ! That's … awful.'
'Worse things happened in that villa, Kris … much worse.'
'Malik's a monster!'
Toby blushed hot at that description of his former protégé. If Malik was a monster, what did that make Tobias the Seraph? Frowning down at the map without really seeing it, he was almost startled when Kris took his hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed it. Toby gazed into Kris's eyes and saw there a yearning, wordless sympathy. Then he was in tears, blindly seeking Kris's arms and sobbing inconsolably. He was still crying in utter misery when Vuk returned and took Kris's place.
Eventually, Toby subsided in the strong arms of his lover. He began to hear the soothing words falling in his ears and feel the stroking of his hair and back. As he faltered out a last sob, he felt Vuk's fingers wipe the tears from his eyes and kiss their lids. More pragmatically, Kristijan offered him a rag to wipe up the snot that had run down his upper lip and chin.
'Okay?' Vuk murmured.
Toby nodded mutely, though he knew that, in the end, nothing would be okay for him. All he could do was soldier on and try to redeem the horrors he had made possible. At the moment, the pressing need was to alert his personal enemies in Rothenia to the danger in their midst.
'Now, where do we go to catch the train, my baby?'
It was Kristijan who answered. 'The line to Rechtenberg goes up this valley to the north of us. There's a town ten kilometres in that direction where a station's marked; it's called Bad Altkirchen. We reckon it'll be a stop on the line to Rothenia.'
'Then let's march, Cubs.'
Strangely, that familiar injunction was what brought Toby back into focus. As they headed out of the camp and marched up into the valley, he felt safe once more under Vuk's guidance. The man could make him feel not just loved, but sheltered.
When Kristijan asked what they'd do if they managed to get across the frontier, Toby found the self-possession to answer, 'I have cousins in the capital. We don't exactly get on, but they come from a family with contacts high in the Rothenian authorities. If I can get to them, and if they believe me, then we may have a chance to thwart Atib's plan … whatever it is.'
'Have you been to Strelzen, Tovyan?'
'A few times, yes.'
'Is it as amazing as it looks on TV?'
'I guess so, but I didn't do tourism. My cousins go to school there.'
'What are they called?'
'Mike, Yuri, Rafe and Gabe … oh, and Lance. He's the eldest. I think he's at university now.'
'They sound like Americans.'
'No, they're English … their name's Atwood.'
Kristijan giggled. 'Funny name. But you're a Serb, from a family called Bošvic. How come you're related to these English boys?'
'It's … er … through my father.'
Thankfully, Kristijan subsided at that point, perhaps nervous that Toby might suffer another breakdown.
When they came to a bus-stop, they consulted the timetable posted there, which indicated a bus to Bad Altkirchen would be turning up in ten minutes. It arrived on the dot with Austrian efficiency. Toby negotiated their tickets in fluent German, much to Kristijan's open admiration.
They settled into seats at the back of the bus and watched the wooded hills rise around them as they approached the last sizeable town before Rothenia, the blue wall of whose alpine rampart loomed above the hills ahead of them. Consulting the directions to the ÖBB station posted at the small bus terminal, they soon found themselves in front of the Bahnhof, built like a mountain chalet, with geraniums adorning every ledge.
Toby scanned the timetable. It seemed the slow train to Rechtenberg did stop at Bad Altkirchen. So far so good. Unfortunately, there was only one more stopping train that day, and it would not depart till late in the evening.
'Fuck it,' Vuk snarled, 'but we've got no choice.'
'How do we make it past border controls, Vuk?' Kristijan enquired. 'We've only got our Austrian entry permits. How'll we pass the ticket barrier?'
Vuk shook his head. 'We'll have to think about it. We've got some hours yet.'
They wandered back towards the bus station through the town's small commercial centre. A few euros, not to mention Toby's looks and verbal facility, bought them smiles from a lady at a supermarket checkout and an assortment of drinks and sandwiches. They carried everything back to the Bahnhof, where they sat on a bench outside to eat their lunch. Kristijan commented that the packed sandwiches were a lot more interesting than the camp fare had been.
Vuk disappeared inside the station building for quite some while. When he emerged he looked pensive as he settled back between his friends. 'There's a Rothenian border guard who checks passports before you can go through the ticket barrier. There're no facilities for scanning bags, so I guess we may get our gun on the train with us, but only if we can find a way to bluff through the barrier. Another problem is that the clerk may ask to see our papers before we buy the tickets, so we might not even get as far as the barrier.'
The three youths pondered these problems for a while, without coming to any useful conclusion. As they sat there, expresses to and from Rothenia roared through the Bahnhof from time to time. Vuk made a second reconnaissance and reported that chain-link fences made it hard to get on to the tracks, which were in any case electrified.
It was about an hour before the eight o'clock departure when a series of minibuses pulled up in front of the station and thirty or so young men got out. The Cubs perked up and surveyed the new arrivals, who were chatting, stretching and lighting up cigarettes.
Toby reported that from their overheard conversations they appeared to be Rothenian military personnel on attachment to a NATO facility in Austria, recalled home because of the approach of the Horde.
Vuk pondered the young men for a while. 'Go over and chat with them, Tovyan. Make friends if you can.'
'What … me?'
'You speak the language. They'll like that. See what you can do.'
So Toby got up, a little nervously, and sidled over to where the Rothenians were standing. He had enough sexual experience by then to know that gay men found him deeply attractive. He therefore homed in on a group of three lads who were openly staring at the blond vision he was. He gave a smile which was returned with interest, declined a cigarette they offered, and startled them by saying hello in perfect Rothenian.
'Hey!' exclaimed the leader, a thickset muscular type. 'You're one of us. You're from Strelzen with that accent. Don't I know you from somewhere? Haven't we met on the Wejg?'
Toby shrugged. 'I've, er ... not been there much … a bit too young.'
'Well, when you do want to go, let me know. I'd just love to show you the sights. I'm Boromeo. These guys don't matter, they're from Hofbau.' Cheerful insults answered that sally.
'Where are you off to? Heading home?'
'General mobilisation. You must have heard what's going on. We're the last unit returning home from Austria. We have to be with the army tomorrow. The Red Elphberg is rallying the nation. It's payback time for those heathens.' Growls of agreement came from Boromeo's mates. 'What are you doing here … sorry, you didn't say your name.'
'Oh … it's Tobias … Atwood.'
Toby had no idea later why he claimed that name, but it had an astonishing impact. Boromeo's eyes widened and his friends drew back in shock. 'Fuck! I thought I recognised you. You're one of Lance's … people.'
Now it was Toby's turn for surprise. He had forgotten Rothenians were different from other human races, their land was a place where angels and demons were known and recognised for what they were. 'So, you know my cousin?'
'Oh yeah … and I know what he is too.'
'Then are you for him or against him?'
Boromeo nervously licked his lips. 'I know he's good and works for the lord king, our Golden Elphberg, and I want to be good too. The king was merciful to me one time, when I got in over my head. He forgave and healed me. Yes … I'm for Lance, we all are.'
'Then I need your help. My friends and I are refugees from the Horde. We must be in Strelzen tonight, but we have no papers. Can you do anything?'
Scratching his dark, cropped head, Boromeo stared over at Vuk and Kristijan. 'The one in specs looks no more than a kid, but the other's a proper man. Come over to the van, we'll kit all three of you in our gear. They won't check you at the barrier if you go through with us. Fortunately the lieutenant went ahead, and I'm in charge of the platoon.' He glanced at his friends. 'You guys go square this with some of the others. You know the ones. Tobias, you've been conscripted. Welcome to the service of King Maxim.'
'It's an honour,' Toby replied seriously, and found he meant it.
Mike was where Lance had left him, focussed on the screens. He looked up at his brother's approach. 'Lance, can you check these messages out?'
Lance reassumed his headphones. His angelic intellect immediately identified and translated the words streaming through his ears, though they made little sense. 'Some form of Iranian dialect,' he observed. 'It's the target group alright. It's coming from the direction of Wendel. Could only be Horde.'
Mike nodded. 'I'm transcribing it into Rothenian. Better tell the lieutenant.'
The engineer officer approached at Lance's signal, to stare at the words Mike was typing as they scrolled up the screen. 'It's not in code?' he asked.
'No sir,' Lance agreed. 'But it is pretty cryptic.'
'Well done, lads. Get a print-out, and one of you run it up to brigade HQ. Make sure it gets to Major Ruprevic. In the meantime, keep monitoring that frequency, but don't lose sight of the others either. There could well be more groups out there.'
'Sir,' Mike called out. 'A lot of Horde traffic coming in from the East now. It's a mixture of languages, with Turkish predominating. It's coded but I can read it. Sir, they're engaging with the Czechs screening Bratislava, only it's a feint! They're making their bid to penetrate the Starel Valley.'
'Shit! Never mind Brigade!' He called over to the comm desk, 'Get on to General Staff and NATO HQ. Alert them. The Horde's on its way.'
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