Gavin Price scanned the dim, green landscape through his night lenses. At his back was the slit of a camouflaged postern from the fortress, where Eddie Peacher had placed an infrared beacon to assist their return. They were on the slopes of Andreshalch and behind the Horde's siege lines. There were scattered lights below and in front of them. The mass of the Kaleczyke Horja was to their right. Horde artillery was still firing, and shells could be heard howling overhead to explode on the fortress's stone face some moments later.
Terry paused, then led them down into the valley. They knew this landscape by now as well as the local shepherds did. Gavin followed the mark on Peter Lewis's back – luminescent only through his visor. Terry's voice hissed in their ears: 'Babes, we're heading east to the Frischesbruch, where there's a concentration of movement. It's a projected target area, sheltered from our artillery and close to water. We can expect an encampment. Keep it cool.'
They trudged on, following a goat path which snaked down a stony slope. Reaching the base, they stopped at a line of bushes. Gavin and Peter were called up and told to go further forward and scout.
The two small men disappeared silently through the bushes. Gavin wasn't sure what he was expected to find, but the vague hope was that it would be an ammunition dump that could be sabotaged. He knew there was a notch in the pass from which tumbled a stream that turned eastward towards the Slovakian border. There was a flat space of sheltered mountain pasture where the stream gushed out.
His lenses showed up many groups of figures. It looked as though the projections had been correct. There were patrolling troops and several compounds. People huddled in groups … resting troops perhaps. Further down, the glare of lights revealed an encampment filled with activity. He unbuckled his chin strap and took off his helmet. Loud on the night air came a sound he soon recognised, that of hammers on timber. The Horde soldiers were building something. But what?
Gavin replaced his helmet and tapped Peter's to signal he was going forward. Leaving his rifle with his companion, he scooted low through the undergrowth. He climbed up a slope till the scent of tobacco, as much as movement ahead, warned him that the Horde was not so reckless as to neglect posting sentries. But why here?
He squirmed beneath the bushes to the lip of the pasture, where the bright lights and bonfires momentarily blinded him. When he adjusted his sights he found he was near a compound where clustered figures were hunkered down or cowering. The ones he could see were mostly young, partly dressed or completely naked. Gavin's stomach lurched. As he watched, a woman was separated out and pushed towards a group of waiting Horde warriors. He looked away, but the screams reached him. This was the Horde's recreation area. A young teenage boy was the next to be hauled out and handed over to the group of waiting soldiers.
Shaking and sick to the stomach, Gavin tried hard to focus and fix the topography of the area in his mind. Then he squirmed back to Pete. He silently signalled to his friend and they returned to the Ultras.
The squad hunkered down around Terry as Gavin delivered his report. Terry listened solemnly, then shook his head. 'We knew they did this, herding male and female captives with them as they conquered, to be raped and enslaved. It's just horrible to see the evidence of it. These'll be kids dragged from Hungary or even further afield.'
The look on his troops' faces was set. It was Tanya Atkinson who spoke for them. 'We're not walking away from this, Terry.'
'What about this construction work, Gavin?' Terry queried.
'I could hear banging and shouts, but couldn't see anything. It's all going on further down the Frischesbruch.'
'How many of these sex slaves were there?'
'Dunno, Terry. Maybe a hundred, and I could only see one pen of them. There may have been more for all I know. There were queues of Horde soldiers waiting to get their turn. It looks like it could go on all night. It's their reward for surviving the first day of the siege I guess.'
Terry mused, 'We were sent here to create havoc behind their lines. I'd thought it'd be by blowing up a munitions dump, but maybe disrupting their comfort network would be just as serious a blow. Babes, this is what we'll do.'
Ed Cornish, being a dedicated student of his profession, was aware that night movement was the most perilous form of military manoeuvre. With the border villages of Rothenia in flames, however, there was no alternative to rapid action. His army at least had the advantage of a fully functional communications network. Though the resources of NATO were sadly limited, they still offered the General Staff a satellite GPS facility that the Horde lacked. Even so, things could go wrong and, as chief of staff to the Marshal Prince of Elphberg, Ed knew it all too well. That was why it was his job to prevent those self-same problems.
Ed's major distraction came from the direction of Kaleczyk. The Rothenian army was committed now to a campaign in the Starel Gap. If the fortress was overwhelmed, there were no reserves to fend off the consequences of the Horde's bursting out of the Andreshalch pass on to their flank. As it was, the army in the field was outnumbered by Malik-rammu's legions pushing up from the Danube basin. Ed restrained once again the urge to text Henry and Lance: absurdly personal use of his time when he was supervising the movement of three army corps, twelve divisions in all.
He checked the master display in Rudi's mobile HQ van. Ten aides on comm desks were continuously updating the Rothenian picture, while a further six were assimilating the intelligence on Horde movements and units, projecting it against their own dispositions.
A lieutenant from the latter group held up his hand, the signal of a crucial development. Ed was behind him like a shot. 'It's intel from General Fedorovic north of Ostberg, sir! First contact with the enemy moving on the city. It's the real thing. He's requesting confirmation from the prince.'
Ed looked across the van at Rudi, who stood with arms folded brooding on the display. Ed caught his eye and a nod followed. 'Standing orders confirmed to the Sixth Division. Withdraw to prepared positions north of the city. The Fourth Division will hold the suburbs when the enemy tries to seize the bridges. Before dawn the Fifth and Twelfth must make their breakthrough into the resulting gap in the enemy's line as he commits more and more of his men to get to the river.'
The lieutenant conveyed the orders into his mic, while Ed moved over to Rudi. 'Make or break, sir.'
Rudi reflected, almost absently, 'They had to keep the bulk of their forces on the right bank of the Starel, because Ostberg is on that bank. Their army is split and they have to seize the bridges to link up. For a brief space Malik's command is divided, and that's our window. We concentrate against the main force. We go for the bigger target and take the risk that his pincer movement will grind to a halt at Andreshalch, so we won't be vulnerable to attack from our rear. Instead, it'll be Malik who will be outflanked, and not in any way he's experienced before.'
'Operation Ruric is a go.'
'Precisely.' Rudi crossed his arms again, and brooded on a screen streaming live pictures from the city of Ostberg. Flashes lit up the city as the Horde artillery began to pound the Rothenian positions in the suburbs. In the square below the camera, troops moved. A few vehicles tore eastwards, ambulances no doubt, though it was difficult to tell in the dark, for most of the city's street lights had been extinguished. Even in the most optimistic scenario, Ostberg would suffer grievously over the next day or two, and civilian casualties were inevitable. It was something Rudolf Elphberg took very personally.
There were many awake that night all over Rothenia. In Fridricsgasse, lights blazed in Damien's home, where the chiefs of the avian tribe still in Strelzen had gathered. Like Rudi, Damien was brooding on the screen, as Eastnet reported the first incursions of the Horde into the Starel valley. An embedded journalist with a reserve unit dug in east of Wendel was commenting on the news coming out of Kaleczyk. The fortress had broken the first onslaught, and no Turkic soldiers had made it through the pass of Andreshalch. Fire lit up the sky, and the journalist was speculating that the artillery of the fortress was making most of the noise now.
Mattie and Luc cheered at that news. Then, seeing Damien's gloom, the French boy raised an eyebrow. 'This seems all to the good, my prince. What's got you down?'
Damien grimaced. 'I juss got this bad feeling, and since a lot of people I love are on that fookin' hill, I can't shake it off.'
'Where're your dads?' Mattie enquired.
'Nate's in Kaleczyk, and Justin's cleaning up the mess in Luchau left by the deaths of Rudi's uncle and his missis. He'd ravver be with Nate, though, and so would I.'
Reggie came up besides his old friend and took him round the arm. 'I feel it too,' he said. 'I think it's an avian sense. We can feel at a distance. Lance's emotions just reach out and wash over me now and again. But I can also sense what Max and Gavin are experiencing. Can you?'
'Nuh, mate,' Damien said. 'Least I doan' fink so. 'Cept I got a flash of somefink very like grim satisfaction that juss has to be Mikey. Trust me to pick up on his frequency.'
Helen joined Reggie next to Damien. 'I get these flashes too. And from what I can sense, Gavin and Max are having one hell of a time. I get fear, shock and high tension. Looks like we're empaths. What do you think, Yuri love?'
The small girl gave a hesitant smile, took Mattie's hand and said, 'I think it's a special avian sense. Mates are very closely attuned, which is why Reggie is picking up on Lance so strongly, but it's a general sense too. Happiness and unhappiness spread across the avian community like ripples in a pool, just as when Barry rebelled from his gender assignment. With so many of us in high danger, I'm not surprised you are both unsettled, our king and queen. You are the focus of our people.'
'Thass me, all heart,' Damien agreed. 'Question is, people, is this a call to action? Cos if we're goin' on feelings, every nerve is telling me iss time for fight and flight. Sod it … I'm the king. Iss time to get ready. Hey …!' Damien yelped in surprise. He clasped his left hand to his right upper arm. Then abruptly he ripped off his shirt. Everyone stared at his armlet, which no longer looked like metal, but as if it were fashioned of lines of interlaced golden light. When he turned to his friends, his eyes of their own accord had lost their humanity and become luminous blue.
Damien slowly lifted his arm, which seemed to be beyond his control. As if that were the command, all present transformed instantly. Wings flexed, and there were cries of alarm, for their transformations had produced something different this time. The males in the room stared down at their groins. All had erections, apparently an avian battle response. However, their swollen penises were laid tight against their bellies, in some cases pushing as high as their rib cages, while their scrotums were almost entirely absorbed into the thick roots of their cocks.
The females too were different, their hanging breasts now no more than swellings in their chests, their vulvas barely visible in their lower bellies. Their buttocks were tight and small, no bigger than those of their mates. Male and female alike had transformed for war into machines of muscle and power, and for the first time a female had acquired horns: great curving golden ones arced outwards from Helen's forehead. She felt at them gingerly.
Damien called out above the alarm and noise in a voice of complete command, for his full vigour had returned to him in this form. He spoke in Rothenian too, English no longer seeming right to him as an avian. 'Quiet! It's time. We knew it would come. All over the city the avians are rising, I can feel them. Tool up, people. We're flying.'
'Where to, lord?' Gabe asked in the sudden hush.
'Kaleczyk. To save those we love!'
Tovyan Bošvic and Kristijan Dotchev were awake in their bedroom at a cheap hostel in Mittenheim. A journey back to Austria through Rechtenberg was impossible because it would have meant passing through a war zone. So they were leaving Rothenia by the western route through Bavaria.
The two boys were lying, barefoot but otherwise clothed, on the bed watching the same TV pictures as the avians in Strelzen. 'It looks bad, Tovyašin.'
'Time to have confidence in the Red Elphberg, Kris.'
Kristijan was quiet for a while, but soon bubbled up again. 'Everything's in German here, Tovyan, not Rothenian. Why's that?'
Tovyan smiled to himself. Kris was very bright. Though only barely educated, his mind was sharp and his curiosity endless.
'Mittenheim was a German province acquired by the Elphbergs back in the sixteenth century. It's always remained German-speaking, as has the Rothenian province of Merz, to the north of here. Quite a few wars have been fought over this province between the Rothenians and Bavarians, but the eldest son of the king of Rothenia has been duke of Mittenheim since the nineteenth century.'
'And were you there … y'know … when those things all happened?'
Tovyan shook his head. 'I only came into the universe very rarely, and not in a physical form. I was the voice in the storm, and the bush that burned. It was only sixteen years ago when I put on a human body for the first time, which was my big mistake … in so many ways. So you could say that in one way I'm no older than you, Kris, at least as a human. And this body you see is even younger. It was constructed because of something that happened ten years ago. It was a disguise, to let me talk to humans and interact with them, a sort of mask I could put on and take off. But now it's the real me, and it'll change and age as your body does.'
'So how do you know all this stuff?'
'It's my nature … or it was. I absorb knowledge and see inside things. Less perhaps, now that I'm fully human, but I still retain a lot. However, that'll change. There are new things to learn and I have to do them the human way from now on: that means university and medical school. There are big gaps in my knowledge, so don't ask me about literature or art. I have no idea.'
'But we're both orphans. I mean … you've got no more in the way of parents than I have. How can we do college?'
'We have to be our own grown-ups, Kris. We'll look after each other, right?'
Kristijan nodded vigorously. 'Tovyan and Kris against the whole world!'
Tovyan laughed and snuggled up to his friend. 'Thanks, Kris. You're so precious to me: my best friend now Vuk is gone.' There was no response from Kris, so Tovyan just lay there, his head on Kristijan's chest, feeling comforted.
Eventually, he sat up. 'Maybe it's time to plan. What've we got? Passports which prove we're Rothenian citizens, two big bags full of new clothes and this plastic card they gave me before they put us on the train to the frontier. What is it?'
Kris sat up as well, and took the embossed grey oblong from Tovyan. 'You seriously don't know? You had no idea about those dollars either, did you.'
'You mean it's money? But I thought that was those printed paper slips and metal disks we used in getting to Strelzen.'
'This is a bank card. It means there's money somewhere which you can access through ATMs. Please tell me they gave you a code number.'
Tovyan stood up and scavenged in his back pocket, finding a paper slip he had thrust there during their debriefing. 'Would this be it?'
Kris examined it and nodded. 'We're in the town centre. I saw an ATM down the road. We can go check it out.'
So the pair resumed their socks and trainers and went down through the lobby into the midnight street, where they soon found the ATM lit up and functioning. Seeing Tovyan's hesitation, Kris took charge. He fed in the card, then tapped in the PIN number his friend had been given. It was accepted and a menu appeared. Tovyan looked curiously over Kris's shoulder. 'What do we do now?'
'Well … you tell me what those German words mean, and I'll hit whichever button gives you your balance. It'll tell you how much there is for you to draw on.'
Kris pressed the button indicated by Tovyan. There was a long silence followed by a loud exhalation of breath and an exclamation of 'Jesus Christ Almighty!'
The Ultras squatted in a circle west of the Frischesbruch, sheltered by a patch of scrub. Gus Underwood was the exception. He was back along the path on sentry duty. Terry was summing up. 'So we're agreed: saving those people is higher in our priorities than blowing up ammo. Right. Then this is how we do it. We have the cutters to clear the wire on this side of their pen, so Pete and Max will do that. Tanya and Eddie have the RPGs: you'll pass 'em to Davey and Nate. On me signal, those two'll lob grenades into the Horde soldiers lining up for their comfort sessions. The captives are bound to run in the other direction, towards us. They'll find Tanya, Chris, Max, Eddie and Pete urging them along the track up to the fortress entrance. Doan' know how many will get the message, but every one that does is a life saved.
'Less get this clear. Me, Davey, Nate, Gus, Danny and Rupe are the rear guard. We'll take station across the Frischesbruch to pick off and discourage any pursuers. That means the rest of yer will be spaced along the path urging the refugees in the right direction. Eddie, I'll leave yer to organise that, but Tanya should be the first person they see … and wivout her helmet too. These frightened kids'll be more likely to follow the direction of a woman than a man. Iss men thass been abusing them.
'Gav, yer go back and liaise wiv the gate guards: they knows yer and'll listen. Tell 'em whassup and get 'em ready for a surge of bewildered refugees. Inform brigade. That exit from the mountain'll have to be sealed after this escapade. There're contingencies in place for that. Get a message through to brigade to plaster the south side of the pass opposite us at oh-two-hundred precisely. Got it? That'll add to the distraction and light up the place nicely if they throw in the odd star-shell. Gav, go!'
Without a word, the small figure of Gavin Price saluted, replaced his visor, and disappeared into the dark. Pete and Max went silently in the opposite direction. The rest checked their gear. Davey glanced up from time to time at the tall figure of his lover dark against the stars. Terry was gazing east with an air of intense concentration. Davey stood and moved quietly to his side. 'You okay, lover?'
The familiar chuckle answered him. 'Course. Yer knows me, Davey. Is juss …'
'I felt something curious juss then. I'm not one for omens, me, but it seemed to me there was one more in our circle than shoulda been there. Not only that, but he seemed a bit familiar.'
'In what way?'
'Took me back to anuvver day … long ago now, in a forest in France when I found a guy who shouldna been there.'
'Sorry, don't get it.'
'Ramon Villa. I saw him – or a shadow of him – amongst yer briefly, or I think I did. He was lying back in juss the way he used ter at the poolside in San Marino.' He chuckled again, and didn't seem unnerved to Davey when he did. 'Put it down to the dark. As I said, I'm not one for omens. Still … yer knows I love yer, doancha my prince?'
Davey went closer to Terry. 'You've given me every reason to believe it, babe. You've had my heart since you forgave my adolescent stupidity and put me back on track in life. Everything I am, it's because of your faith in me.'
A hand took Davey's in the dark, gripped it, then released. 'To business then. Iss what we does best, you and I.'
Twenty minutes later, Gavin was back with the okay from brigade as well as four commandos from the gate whom Henry had ordered down to assist in the evacuation. Without night gear, they were told to take position above the scrubland. Terry gave the nod, and Max and Pete disappeared with the wire cutters, painted matte black like the rest of the Ultra's metal gear.
The group remained silent in the darkness. There was plenty of noise in the night around them however. The distant hammering and shouting continued. The Horde's artillery lobbed the occasional round against Kaleczyk, to prove it could more than anything. The fortress itself had ceased fire some time ago.
Davey caught the gleam of Gus Underwood's eyes in front of him. 'I think I appreciate the phrase "valley of the shadow of death" rather better than I once did,' the young man murmured to him, in his precise academic way.
Max and Pete returned and reported that the wires were cut and cords attached ready for the fence to be breached. They reported no sentries around the compound. The only activity the Horde was interested in was the systematic rape being carried on at the entrance.
Terry checked his watch. 'Okay, people, it's oh-one-fifty. Positions along the path! Tanya, helmet off and come wiv me and the rear guard. Remember, when the Horde eventually work out whass going on, they'll drive us back up towards the gate. Be ready to give covering fire. But no one is to risk gate security being compromised.'
Weapons were shouldered and, without a word, the Ultras moved off to their positions. Davey and Nate stayed on the west of the Frischesbruch, targeting their launchers and waiting for the signal from Terry through their helmet coms.
Though it was expected, the sudden howl of incoming shells from Kaleczyk and the eruption of flame on the other side of the pass took everyone aback. Davey flinched involuntarily. It was the signal. A tap on his helmet from Nate and they sent their grenades across the valley. One overshot the Horde guards but another exploded down the trail within a group of them. A third and fourth round compounded the damage. The captives were shrieking and pressing down to the Frischesbruch end of their pen.
Gus and Danny took the cords and pulled the barbed-wire coils aside, making a ten-foot breach in the fence. White faces of captives turned away from the explosions and gazed at them. Tanya Atkinson's bright gold hair drew attention in the light of the fires. She gestured and pulled at people.
Other Ultras were amongst them now. The captives, used to obeying men with guns, began to stumble out of the compound, down to the stream and across it to a safety they did not know was awaiting them. Bewildered, they responded to urging and took to the path, some helping others. Soon a trail of youths of both sexes was stumbling slowly towards the camouflaged fortress entrance. They were all barefoot and many were without clothes. Davey was appalled at how young some of them were.
The evacuation was happening too slowly for Davey. But the bombardment on the other side of the pass was drawing attention away from the compound, and the Horde soldiers nearby were in disarray. He counted about a hundred captives going past him before the sharp crack of shots from below told him the breakout had been noticed. He and Nate settled into sniper positions.
With the shooting, the captives panicked. Some flung themselves down, while others broke into a stumbling run. Terry and the others were in a line covering the withdrawal now. Tanya, still helmetless in the pen, checked those who were down. She got some up, and at the last gathered a child into her arms and ran with her down to the stream and up past Davey. He and Nate began picking off the massing enemy. The night sights made it easy enough but the numbers soon began to tell. The rear guard pulled out of the pen and withdrew, firing steadily back to the Frischesbruch.
Although the Horde soldiers didn't have night-firing capability, their firepower was bound to take its toll. One of the Ultras – Davey had no idea who – went down before they crossed the stream. He kept firing as Terry joined him. 'Back, back, lads!'
They withdrew into the cover of the scrubland, but the enemy was coming up fast. It was as Davey was climbing over a rock to take up the next position that someone thumped him on the shoulder. Puzzled, he turned, and with his head reeling he realised that this was what being shot was like. He collapsed into blackness.
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